About ten years ago, Thora Birch was a young actress on the come. She had a memorable supporting role in the Oscar-winning Best Picture, American Beauty, and then two years later gave an assured performance in Ghost World, my favorite film of 2001. She was not yet twenty, and stardom seemed assured.
But what happened? I haven't had much call to think about her since then. Last week she was in the news for being fired from an off-Broadway production of Dracula (too bad, if she were in it I'd go to see it). The published reason for her dismissal was the cast and crew's response to the overzealousness of her father, who is also her manager. Both of her parents were actors in adult films, including Deep Throat. I don't think I knew that, although I remember the controversy surrounding her topless scene in American Beauty, which was only possible because her parents gave permission.
That story got me thinking about Thora, whom I've admired more for "second-brain" reasons than anything else. So I Netflixed some of her recent films--she has not stopped working--and am sad to report that she is now a fixture mostly in straight-to-DVD horror films. Ghost World seems an era ago.
Slingshot, from 2005, features Birch in a supporting role. The main roles are played by David Arquette and Balthazar Getty. They are a couple of grifters who roll into an affluent community in Connecticut, hoping to seduce rich women and then steal from them. Birch plays the daughter of one of the targeted women, whom Getty falls in love with, making Arquette jealous. The film is odious from start to finish, with no sympathetic characters.
Train, from 2006, is well-made trash. Basically Hostel on a train, Birch is one of a group of college athletes on tour in Eastern Europe (apparently this region of the world is full of sadistic torturers). They end up on a train that is really a rolling organ-trafficking outfit, as Birch's pals are caught and cut open, their organs given to wealthy recipients. I find it hard to believe that anyone would be given a heart after it was ripped from someone's chest by the greasy hands of a maniacal butcher, but that's just me. The film does have high production standards, given its limited budget, but anyone who enjoys this sort of torture-porn needs psychological help.
Deadline is also fairly well made, an atmospheric ghost story starring Brittany Murphy, in one of her last roles. She plays a screenwriter who is getting over being assaulted by her boyfriend. Of course she takes refuge in a large old house in the middle of nowhere. Soon she finds videotapes made by a young couple who lived there before, with the wife being played by Birch. It becomes apparent that Birch was murdered by her jealous husband, and her ghost is guiding Murphy toward the truth. The story is pretty skimpy, and doesn't really fill out the ninety-minute running time, but it's got some good scares.
Dark Corners is perhaps the worst of her films, an awful-looking psychological thriller that recalls the otherwise forgettable Demi Moore film Passion of Mind. Birch plays two roles--a pretty blonde woman who has a wonderful life. She has dreams, though, in which she's a brunette who leads a squalid life as a mortician. But which one is real, and which one is the dream? Unfortunately, I didn't care, and the ending made no sense. It's an ugly, ugly film, made without any discernible skill.
Finally there's Winter of Frozen Dreams, which is about a real-life crime supposedly committed in Wisconsin about thirty years ago. It's based on a novel, but I have a hard time understanding how anyone was interested in this case--it's deadly dull. Birch plays a woman who seems to seduce lonely men and murders them to get their life insurance, but no one in this film is very interesting, and there's nothing clever about her, or even sinister.
Birch's performance in this film may be the key to why she's been reduced to the straight-to-DVD ghetto--she's not a very good actress. Whatever Terry Zwigoff got out of her in Ghost World is missing in these films. She has a tendency to keep everything bottled up, delivering her lines with little smirks, as if letting the audience know she's above this crap. If I were casting a movie and looked at these films as an audition, I wouldn't cast her.
It's easy for me, though, sitting here in my house, to dump on someone like Thora Birch, who's out there working steadily. Most actors make choices based on wanting to pay their mortgage and put food on the table. To castigate them for "bad choices" seems to me petty and childish. As Birch puts it on her Web site:
"Someone asked me if I'd like to be in a film that get's a theatrical release. LOL Been there, done that, and guess what, they all end up on the home viewing shelve anyway.....lol
"In all seriousness, the answer would be sure, of course, who doesn't? But, that's not going to change how I navigate my own life or career, which are two interconnected realms.
"See, the way the industry views it, as an actress, ideally I should be prepared to cut off my hands, feet, and tits in order to get a cameo in a Judd Apatow, or Scott Rudin film. Call me a defiant rebel, I just can't bring myself to actually behave in a manner that would signify that that was my outlook on things. I don't have time to be desperate. Do things bother me? Am I unsatisfied? Of course.....but I'm in line on that one; my ticket number is 2,987,874,000 out of 6 bil."
Reading that took some of the starch out of my sails. If I were a struggling actor, and I got an offer to do Train, I'd probably leap at it with both feet, and do my very best, with all the effort I would give a performance in Hamlet.