A worthy successor to such similar behind-the-scenes documentaries as 2004’s The Cutting Edge: The Magic Of Movie Editing and 1992’s Visions Of Light: The Art Of Cinematography, Tom Donahue’s HBO doc Casting By performs the admirable service of deepening viewers’ appreciation of an unsung aspect of the moviemaking process. Along the way, the film makes a largely convincing case in the ongoing movement to have a separate Oscar for casting directors and allows a truly impressive roster of movie royalty to share some entertaining anecdotes about their big breaks. But most of all, Casting By serves as a cinematic love letter to the late, legendary casting pioneer Marion Dougherty, an accurately described “salty dame” who essentially created the modern casting director position, and whose inevitable rejection by the film industry she helped shape with her instincts and her courage is presented as an enduring injustice.
Starting out as casting director on the influential early TV drama anthology Kraft Television Theater in the late ’40s and continuing with early cop series Naked City and Route 66, Dougherty soon populated weekly installments with local New York talent from the Actors Studio and off-off-Broadway, eschewing the expected pretty faces with the most talented and best-suited. Insisting in archive footage that she went with her gut, she gave the first big breaks to the likes of Warren Beatty, James Dean, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, William Shatner, Christopher Walken, Peter Fonda, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, and dozens of others. Moving to NYC-set indie features, you can add names like Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Dustin Hoffman to the list, most of whom appear on camera to extol her virtues and say thanks (and relate some pretty damned delightful stories along the way—especially Voight’s tale of bombing, hard, in his first Dougherty-provided TV gig, after which he planned to write her a letter begging her not to lose faith in his generation of actors).
Moving to Hollywood in the ’70s, Dougherty’s influence grew, her positions as head of casting for Paramount and then Warner Brothers impacting the casting of such films as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (where she was instrumental in getting Redford and Newman to switch roles), The World According To Garp (where she fought for virtual unknowns Glenn Close and John Lithgow), and Lethal Weapon (for which she coaxed Mel Gibson out of semi-retirement and urged director Richard Donner to cast Danny Glover in a groundbreaking piece of color-blind casting). In contrast, the decline of her power is depicted as a depressing erosion of the standards in film and TV casting she was instrumental in creating, culminating in an anecdote from Dougherty protegee Juliet Taylor (Schindler’s List, Woody Allen’s longtime casting director of choice), where Dougherty broke down at being offered the gig on a certain David Arquette comedy. “She started crying on the phone,” relates Taylor, “She asked, ‘How can I have a career with Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy…and See Spot Run?’ See Spot Run broke her.” She wasn’t the only one.
If there are villains in Casting By, it’s those who failed (and continue to fail) to give casting directors like Dougherty their due in the filmmaking and awards process (it took decades before she received her first onscreen solo film credit). And while former Paramount head Michael Eisner certainly doesn’t look great (in one instance when Dougherty suggested Meryl Streep for a role in the ’80s, Eisner reportedly countered with Suzanne Somers), the film is hardest on director (and current Directors Guild president) Taylor Hackford, who pops up throughout to deny the legitimacy of a casting director Oscar (and even lobbies against the title “director” as part of the job description). While his position isn’t a popular one amidst the panoply of acting and directing talent on the pro-casting director team assembled here (and his toothy, self-satisfied smile while making his case might make someone want to take a poke at him), it must be said that, for a film dedicated to revealing just how essential the position is to the filmmaking process, Casting By doesn’t nail the argument shut itself.
While the ample evidence presented that casting directors like Marion Dougherty (and Hollywood counterpart Lynn Stallmaster, who’s given second-on-the-scene status here) use their gifts to spot under-appreciated, off-the-radar acting talent and convince film directors and executives to accept their choices is given weight by the sheer force of testimonials gathered here, the film relies too much on vagueness and star power to make its case. Throughout, famous actors, directors, and other casting people describe what Dougherty did with mushy phrases such as, “She has a very clear idea about things—she could see what people couldn’t see,” and “It’s a gut reaction, to love actors and be interested in them,” or (from Glenn Close) “She could understand what directors want and need, sometimes better than they did themselves.”
There’s no doubt that Dougherty had a keen eye for talent, sought that talent in unconventional places, and waged a decades-long battle to get the movie and TV establishment to cast the right person for the right role in spite of the conventional wisdom. And that she, in creating a casting company that gave a heartening number of (exclusively female) casting directors their start, was a positive, enduring force which made the movies and television better for her efforts. But the film could have made a stronger case for the creation of a casting director Oscar (the Academy declined to be interviewed) if Casting By articulated its position better.
- Another minor villain in Casting By is The View’s Joy Behar, who’s quoted asking, “What, are they gonna give Oscars to the garbage men next?” Hackford and Behar—they don’t understand movies!
- Of equal interest to film and TV fans is Casting By’s wealth of archival early acting footage of some of the most famous actors in the world. My favorite being this giggle-inducing dramatic reading from a very young Clint Eastwood on Death Valley Days—“My name is John Lucas. For the last time, I don’t want your mail service!”
- That being said, the film seems to think it’s necessary for verisimilitude’s sake to reproduce most of this early footage with truly dreadful sound and picture quality. There are versions of these shows and movies with perfectly acceptable quality—the decision to make them look and sound worse is offputting.
- Even worse than Voight’s early TV performance is one by a 22-year-old Warren Beatty whose Brando-esque turn on the Kraft program is so mannered that, as Dougherty accurately states, you can “understand about every third sentence.” He got better.
- Unsurprisingly, the most entertaining story is from the Dude himself, with Jeff Bridges introducing the BIG MOMENT in his first, Dougherty-cast movie, the well-meaning high school racial drama Halls Of Anger. Seeing the audience’s inappropriate reaction to his long-anticipated dramatic debut, he emulates his youthful overacting and admits, “I just about had a bowel movement, man!”
- Venerable character actor Ed Lauter relates a funny tale about getting in to see Dougherty by posing as a mailman, after which her meticulously-kept card films referred to him as “a lower-class Patrick Stewart.” Not sure those two were ever paired up before or since…
- Old pro Buck Henry may come closest to explaining what Dougherty and other great casting directors do: “They can fundamentally readjust the audience’s understanding…by forcing directors to cast people they didn’t know.”