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​Casting Directors and the Academy: Why Lynn Stalmaster’s Honorary Oscar Matters

As the Academy's recognition of casting directors continues to grow, could the guild soon receive its own Oscar category?

“The Graduate”

Courtesy of AMPAS

On Saturday night, Lynn Stalmaster will become the first casting director ever to receive an Academy Award as he’s presented an Honorary Oscar alongside documentarian Frederick Wiseman, editor Anne V. Coates, and Jackie Chan.

Stalmaster has cast countless classics (“The Graduate,” “West Side Story”) and helped launch the careers of actors like John Travolta and Jeff Bridges. Yet, for the Academy, and its relatively new casting director branch, honoring the casting veteran has a deeper meaning and potentially larger implications.

Casting directors remain the only job in the opening titles of a movie that doesn’t have its own Oscar category, but with Stalmaster receiving his award on Saturday many feel it is simply a matter of when, not if.

Lynn Stalmaster

Lynn Stalmaster

Photo By Lance Dawes, Courtesy of AMPAS

The job of casting director is one that Stalmaster invented with Marion Dougherty (she passed away in 2011) after the studio system crumbled in the 1950s. However, it’s only 10 years ago that casting directors were able to unionize and negotiate their first contract, which then opened the door for the guild to become its own branch and have a seat at the Academy’s Board of Governors’ table.

Unlike cinematographers or editors, casting directors do most of their work behind closed doors. That makes education key in gaining recognition, and Lynn Stalmaster’s story is more than the profile of a master; it’s also the history of the profession.

The Independent Casting Director

In the old studio system, actors were under contract to individual studios. When it came time to cast a film, the studio looked at the roster of actors available and moved them around from movie to movie as it suited them. That often resulted in actors playing stock characters.

According to Tom Donahue, the director of “Casting By” — the 2013 HBO documentary celebrating the history of casting directors, which has been seen as largely influential in the Academy’s decision to form the casting branch —  the job of casting a film was more akin to a “glorified human resources position,” where if a role was needed a producer’s assistant would check the roster and schedule of actors under contract.

This changed in the 1950s as the studio system began to crumble and television emerged.

“With the destruction of the studio system in the 1950s, there was this open very creative atmosphere in New York and Los Angeles where films suddenly became cast contingent, whereas in the studio system the actors all under contract,” said Donahue in a recent interview. “Actors became free agents and you had people like Marion and Lynn who knew the talent pool all over the world.”

According to casting director David Rubin, one of the three casting directors serving as a Academy Governor, Stalmaster was the innovator who could see how the role of a casting was evolving and was therefore the first to set up his own business as an independent casting director.

“Lynn saw an opportunity to be hired by the filmmakers themselves and not specifically by the studio and be a one on one collaborator with the filmmaker, which essentially created the job of the independent casting director,” said Rubin.

“I Want to Live”

The turning moment was when director Robert Wise contacted Stalmaster about his new movie, “I Want to Live,” which was based on the true story of Barbara Graham, the first woman to be executed on death row in California.

“Robert Wise wanted authenticity on the screen,” said Rubin. “He wanted the audience to believe those characters were actually prisoners, wardens, and guards and the only well-known actor was the star, Susan Hayward. He saw Lynn’s work on TV, particularly “Gunsmoke,” in which Lynn hired very atypical actors for that genre and used textured theatre actors who had recently moved from Los Angeles to New York.”

"I Want To Live"

“I Want To Live”

courtesy of AMPAS

Hayward would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, while Stalmaster’s relationship with Wise soon opened the door to him working at United Artists, where he was able to repeat this type of collaboration with directors like Billy Wilder and Norman Jewison.  

“Lynn found ways of spinning characters that were written on the page into something unexpected and [find] the kinds of actors who provided those kind of surprises,” said Rubin.

To accomplish this, Stalmaster, an actor himself, was known for keeping his pulse on the acting community coming out of the New York theater scene and around the world. At a time when “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and 1970s was redefining movies by moving away from traditional looking lead characters and emphasizing authenticity, Stalmaster was able to supply directors with unexpected, but spot-on choices to fit their visions.

“The Children of Lynn & Marion”

Following “I Want to Live,” Stalmaster, along with Doughtery, who had set up her own shop in New York, helped define casting directors as close collaborators with the director who helped interpret a story through casting choices.  Stalmaster’s work became intrinsically linked to directors like Hal Ashby, Sydney Pollack, and Jewison. It’s a tradition that continues today, with Martin Scorsese and Ellen Lewis, or Woody Allen with Juliet Taylor.  

Stalmaster helped launch Christopher Reeves career casting him as "Superman"

Stalmaster helped launch Christopher Reeves career casting him as “Superman”

Courtesy of AMPAS

“We are a tight-knit profession, we’re all learning from each other and starting in some else’s office, that’s how you learn,” explained Bernie Telsey, one of the three casting directors also serving as Governor. “There isn’t a university; you wind up as an intern or assistant or associate in an office. One of the amazing things is all of us can draw our lineage back to Marion or Lynn’s office. Even the new generation, if you came up under Ellen Lewis, Juliet Taylor, or David Rubin, they started in Marion or Lynn’s shop. We all feel like [we are their proteges], it does really trickle down and we want to keep that alive because we are such a young profession. “

Recognition

In the early 1990s, casting directors unsuccessfully lobbied for Dougherty to receive an honorary Oscar, which was supported by Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, and Glenn Close.  At the time, however, casting directors were not even a union with a contract. 

Casting director Mike Fenton (“One Flew Under the Cuckoo’s Nest”) helped form the CSA (the Casting Society of America) and led a charge to unionize, eventually finding an unlikely partner in the teamsters who welcomed them into their local and then helped for fight casting directors to get their first contract. Meanwhile, casting directors collaborated with Donahue on his film, which featured directors like Allen, Scorsese, and Spielberg testifying to the vital role casting played in their careers. Donahue’s doc pulls few punches, making the case for Doughtery’s Oscar (she died while the film was being edited) and for casting directors being recognized with a yearly award at the Academy Awards. Five days before “Casting By” premiered on HBO, the AMPAS announced the creation of the casting branch.

"Westside Story"

“West Side Story”

Courtesy of AMPAS

Rubin and Telsey make it clear that Saturday’s honor is simply about Stalmaster’s career, and discussion of the Oscar category is not something they plan to broach with the Governors in the immediate future. Both say that having a voice in the Academy has helped casting directors educate the industry about their profession (they hosted a large event this spring) and it’s increased the Academy’s ranks by recruiting international and diverse casting talent into the member pool.  There are now 101 casting directors who are Academy voting members.

“There has been a cumulative acknowledgement and understanding of the casting process over the past several years, which has only made us stronger and a more connected part of the filmmaking community,” said Rubin. “That has always been our [primary] goal.”

Telsey adds that the only urgency was making sure that the 88-year-old Stalmaster received this honor, so that one of the two great casting pioneers and the history of the profession was a permanent part of the Academy’s history. 

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