Houston Cinema Arts Festival: Casting By – Review


A documentary about an overlooked profession and trailblazer Marion Dougherty.

Prior to the start of Casting By, I was sitting in a row all to myself and listening attentively to two couples sitting behind me. They were discussing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and how the legendary late-night show was a place to discover new talent. If a performing comedian or comedienne made Carson laugh heartily, he would invite him or her over to sit on the couch with Ed McMahon.

Nowadays, late-night talk shows follow a similar theme with little in the ways of surprises. If Jay Leno is on vacation, NBC airs repeats. If Carson were away from his nightly throne, he would have a guest host lined up, be it Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, or Kermit the Frog.

What this has to do with Casting By is simple: There seems to be regression when it comes to finding new talent. Tom Donahue’s documentary looks to illuminate and inform people about the art of casting and how it is very much a creative process. Just as a production designer building a set or an editor trimming a film to fulfill the director’s vision, casting is a critical component to moviemaking.

In this brisk 90-minute jaunt through Hollywood’s glory days, which saw an evolution from sticking with studio contract players to casting a bunch of no names, we begin to notice how important casting is to a production. The fact that casting is the only main-title film credit not recognized with an Oscar category seems like a disservice to the profession.

A number of casting directors are featured but the documentary as a whole acts as tribute to the late Marion Dougherty who blazed a trail as a New York casting director before Hollywood came calling.

Said to be a five year labor of love by its producer Kate Lacey who was in attendance at the screening, Casting By features a who’s who list of luminaries speaking about being discovered by Dougherty and the birth of New Hollywood. The impressive line-up of interviewees includes Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Danny Glover, Robert De Niro and filmmakers Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Taylor Hackford. All but one of those directors contends that casting should be recognized by the AMPAS.

In Old Hollywood, casting was more form fitting and organizational, as if the producers looked at the studio contract players as widgets and put them into roles according to body type and looks. Dougherty changed all that when she pioneered a shift in actors based on ability and not appearance. Me being a moviephile I knew of Marion Dougherty having seen her name in several Warner Bros. releases of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which included Batman Returns and The Last Boy Scout. But I never knew, or at the very least took an interest to see, how many Casting By/Casting Director credits she had accumulated over a thirty-year span. To my surprise, she was instrumental in populating two landmark series in the 1960s, Naked City and Route 66, where she would trawl Off Broadway shows and acting schools to find talents like James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Maureen Stapelton, and Christopher Walken among others. Her experience working on Kraft Television Theatre made her close friends to directors that would go on to have major film careers, among them George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting) and Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon).

Keeping a box of index cards – the pencil markings smudged due to handling – that highlight the attributes of the actors and actresses that have read in Dougherty’s presence, the Queen of the Casting Couch shows that she has more in common with a seasoned police detective, oftentimes going with her gut in making decisions. This is especially true in an episode involving Jon Voight. After the actor botched his first professional acting job on Naked City, five years later he was championed by Dougherty for the starring role in Midnight Cowboy over the more established Michael Sarazzin.

Full of great anecdotes, my favorite may be when she was the head of Warner Bros. casting department and she championed Danny Glover for the film Lethal Weapon. One of my favorite Christmas movies (up there with Die Hard), it was always my belief that the film had been written to have a white actor and black actor in the leading roles. I had no idea that the role of Roger Murtaugh was inferred to be white. But because the script didn’t outright express that the role wasn’t for a person of color Dougherty didn’t see a problem with casting Glover in the role. It was her vision to create a then-modern day Abbott and Costello and she succeeded. (Honestly, can you envision Lethal Weapon without Gibson and Glover?) Other choice anecdotes include Bette Midler being discovered and the casting of Glenn Close and John Lithgow in The World According to Garp.

Marion Dougherty may be the focus of the documentary, but director Tom Donahue also celebrates the work of Lynn Stalmaster. He would be the first to be recognized with an on-screen credit for his work and was instrumental in casting such films as In the Heat of the Night and The Last Detail (where Randy Quaid got a role that was nearly John Travolta’s). He even found the Appalachian banjo-playing kid for John Boorman’s Deliverance.

Casting By closes with the lack of respect given to the profession of casting directors, stemming from misperceptions about what the job involves. Of those filmmakers mentioned above (Scorsese, Allen, and Taylor Hackford), the only one who comes off with a pompous attitude is Hackford, the president of the Directors Guild of America. He is insulted that the word director be associated for anything other than the sole person hired by the studio whose creative vision matters above all. Even describing a cinematographer as a “Director of Photography” makes Hackford uneasy.

Like other fields of entertainment, movies are a collaborative art form and to be dismissive of a field like casting shows a lack of concern of your own profession. The director may have final say in casting roles, but Nancy Klopper, who has been casting Hackford’s films since An Officer and a Gentlemen, was probably very instrumental in casting Louis Gossett Jr. in his Academy Award-winning role.

The fact that the Oscars remain resistant to awarding casting directors while the Emmys have Outstanding Casting categories shows how progressive television has gotten over the years. Programs like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Homeland are supported by strong acting and to award the casting directors signals an appreciation that goes in the creation of such programs.

As for Dougherty’s contribution and influence to the profession of casting, well for now Casting By will remain her tribute. A write-in campaign to get her an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar was attempted in the early ‘90s but it was ultimately nixed. One can only hope that this release will make the Academy revise their arcane practices and at the very least give her a posthumous honor.

Picked up by HBO and set to be released sometime in 2013, filmlovers should definitely seek it out. Just like the documentary A Decade Under the Influence is a history lesson about the ‘70s movie industry, Casting By will be essential viewing for those who want to learn how one woman with an eye for talent would make a bunch of no names into some of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Director: Tom Donahue
Featuring: Marion Dougherty, Lynn Stalmaster, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Lane, Jon Voight, Bette Midler, John Travolta, Robert Redford, John Lithgow, Ed Asner, Ned Beatty, Peter Bogdanovich, Jeff Bridges, Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Taylor Hackford, Paul Haggis, Buck Henry, Norman Lear, John Sayles, Jerry Schatzberg, Cybill Shepherd, Oliver Stone

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