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Review: Documentary ‘Casting By’ Heralds the Unsung Yet Crucial Art of the Casting Director

Review: Documentary 'Casting By' Heralds the Unsung Yet Crucial Art of the Casting Director

“More than ninety percent of directing a picture is the
right casting,” says Martin Scorsese at the outset of Tom Donahue’s engrossing
documentary “Casting By,” which will be released in theaters November 1. And Scorsese’s not alone in his feelings — Woody Allen,
Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and a legion of others put in face time in the film
to trumpet the importance of the unsung, highly intuitive art of casting. The
result is a cinephile’s treat.

The film is primarily a love letter to casting director Marion
Dougherty, a pioneer in her field. Dougherty came to prominence in the 1950s,
when the studio system was on its way out. Going against the grain of the
contract player technique, Dougherty would plumb the depths of the New York
theater scene for actors to take parts on live television. This eventually
segued into higher-profile TV series (“Naked City,” for one), and then on to

The documentary rightfully suggests that because of
Dougherty’s interest in a different type of actor — with distinctive if not
conventional looks and strange new screen energy — her perseverance in casting
these unique individuals had a tremendous impact on New Hollywood. Think Al
Pacino, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Christopher Walken, Gene
Hackman and Maureen Stapleton. All of these actors were given their start by  Dougherty.

And a number of these legendary performers are featured as
interviewees in the film, discussing Dougherty’s nurturing spirit and ability
to see past a bad audition or a crummy walk-on part and understand the true
nature and potential of an actor. Though Dougherty died in 2011, Donahue was
able to get a number of interviews with her before her passing. An elegant if
not flashy woman with a resiliently no-bullshit manner, Dougherty tells one
illuminating anecdote after another from a career spanning a half-century.

She cast James Dean in his first television role. She
established her own casting agency in a New York City brownstone, that Scorsese
and Woody Allen would frequent (Dougherty’s assistant, Juliet Taylor, would go
on to cast dozens of Allen’s films, and still does to this day). She discovered
Bette Midler at a local casting call in Hawaii. She pushed Voight for the
lead in “Midnight Cowboy” — which would land him an Oscar nomination — despite the fact
that he wasn’t even on director John Schlesinger’s shortlist. She
watched then-Paramount president Michael Eisner get down on his knees and beg
her not to accept the head of casting at Warner Bros.; which she did anyway,
because she was certain Eisner would fire her as soon as the Warners offer dried

Despite Dougherty’s tremendous impact, the road to
recognition was a long and arduous one, and this indeed becomes a central theme
of “Casting By” — not just as related to Dougherty, but to the entire
profession of casting. Producer Jerome Hellman recounts with regret that he refused to
give Dougherty a main title credit for “Midnight Cowboy,” a decision that reflects
the stormy relationship, then and now, between the higher-ups on a film production and their
casting counterparts. An unflattering interview with former Directors Guild president
Taylor Hackford reveals his stance on the matter: “The reality is you’re not a
director. And we take exception to being called a director. You’re a casting
person, ‘casting by,’ but I do not call them directors, because they’re not.”

Hackford’s opinion apparently is the prevailing one, as
casting director remains the only main title credit without an Oscar category. (Though the Academy created a Casting Directors Branch this past summer.) This has grim undertones of sexism. As Donahue points out, casting directors are predominantly female, and most of the profession’s representatives in his film
are women (with a notable exception being Lynn Stalmaster, a contemporary of Dougherty’s who plugged Dustin Hoffman for “The Graduate”).

Granted, film editing, costuming and makeup also have female
traditions, but notice how those titles aren’t capped with the authoritative title
of “Director.” There’s the rub.

A depressing reality, but not one without hope. As the
documentary demonstrates, there is a small but heavyweight population in
Hollywood rooting for more recognition of the casting director. Donahue has Eastwood
and De Niro read aloud the letters they sent to the Academy in 1991, imploring it to consider a special Oscar for Dougherty. She was never given the
award, but her advocates’ attitudes haven’t changed over the past two decades,
towards Dougherty or her greater profession. As the ever quotable Scorsese
says, “The time is coming for this to be reexamined and rethought.” Just how
quickly that time will come is another question.

“Casting By” hits theaters November 1 (New York) and November 8 (Los Angeles).

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