In the early days, actors signed multi-film contracts and became “studio players.” This meant that they were wedded to each production company, assigned to a number of different films each year playing a role probably familiar to their last. Actors were cogs in a machine, and it was rare that someone worked their way up from small-time character actor to full-blown star. If you looked like a Leading Man, you became a Leading Man, or you were soon out of the business. There’s a whole generation of filmgoers that don’t understand that non-traditional casting is a relatively contemporary invention, and for them, the documentary “Casting By” should prove to be tremendously enlightening.
“Casting By” traces the evolution of casting directors at one starting point, the late Marion Dougherty. The unspoken truth, of which the film delicately hints, is that the west coast simply had a surplus of gorgeous faces, many of whom followed the bright lights to Hollywood. Based on the east coast, however, Dougherty brought a new sensibility, different faces, and serious performers. Hollywood wanted models, but Dougherty, who regularly scanned the Broadway stages, brought them actors.
The turning point, the film argues, is Dougherty taking the reins on the edgy New York City crime series “Naked City.” Fully in charge of casting the show, which was shot on location, Dougherty uncovered a gold mine of character types that didn’t fit the conventional leading man roles. In footage from the show, we see the work of barely teenaged would-be legends, including Jon Voight, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken and Robert Duvall. Explains Dougherty in one of the many interviews she gave for the film (sadly right before her passing), someone like Duvall wasn’t handsome, per se, but he could play a hero, or he could play a villain. It’s also a treat to see Dougherty reflect on discovering very raw talent like an initially uncooperative James Dean and a marble-mouthed, genuinely terrible Warren Beatty (his early work on “Kraft Television Theatre” is credited to an attempt to be like Marlon Brando).
Under the surface of Dougherty’s suggestions for East Coast talents is a widening of the pool of ethnic actors, obscuring the typical WASPy appearance of leading men and women to include the likes of Carroll O’Connor, Dustin Hoffman and Cicely Tyson. In a telling moment, director Richard Donner speaks of casting “Lethal Weapon,” and hearing Dougherty suggest Danny Glover, only to rebuff her with a kneejerk retort, “But he’s black.” Though Donner’s revelation has a touch of Hollywood Grandstanding, the script had been written colorblind, and Donner had simply automatically leaned toward ‘white’ as the default. Though Donner’s confession was filmed at a Hollywood event in 2006, you hope the doc circulates amongst current studio heads, who still adhere to old-fashioned methodology.
The one hot-button topic of the doc that arises is of credit, and those who would denigrate the work done by casting directors. Proudly sticking his head out to come across as the most obnoxious, pigheaded talking head is Taylor Hackford, the current head of the Directors Guild of America. He supports the long-held belief that casting directors don’t even deserve the name “director” in their job title (which long ago resulted in the onscreen credit “casting by”) because they don’t direct anything — though if you saw “Love Ranch,” you’d say the same for Hackford. While industry types constantly push for an Academy Award for casting directors, Hackford argues that casting ultimately falls under the umbrella of “directing” and that casting directors don’t deserve credit for something in which someone like Hackford has final say. Hackford comes across as smug and dim-witted, contradicted by nearly every other voice in the doc, some of whom are other directors.
There’s a slight disappointment in “Casting By” as it only hints at the chronological bookends of this story. The idea of studio execs auditioning people to be a Lead Actor or Actress regardless of the role is an idea worth understanding in greater detail, and the notion of contemporary casting being done by risk-averse number-crunching executives is another thoughtful nugget to pursue. Fact is, “Casting By,” which runs a little over an hour and a half, simply tackles, in-depth, a neglected part of Hollywood that could easily span several different documentaries. With an all-star collection of interviews from the likes of Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro and scores of other similarly huge names, “Casting By” zips past with boundless energy and sharp editing, an absolute pleasure for Hollywood hardcores and casual moviegoers alike. [A-]