A Credit Long Overdue

Casting By
(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Tom Donahue
Feat. Marion Dougherty, Ellen Lewis, Juliet Taylor, Danny Glover, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Lane, Jon Voight, Bette Midler and John Travolta.
Casting Director Marion Dougherty
The Ottawa premiere of Tom Donahue’s documentary Casting By couldn’t arrive at a better time. It was just yesterday that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it is finally adding a unique branch for casting directors. Casting directors have been invited to be a part of The Academy for years, although they were lumped into the broad group of Members at Large. The move is a step in the right direction towards acknowledging some of the unsung talents in the film industry. (Casting, as the film notes, is the only main title credit without a category in the Oscars.) After seeing Casting By, though, viewers will agree that casting directors deserve as much credit for their contribution to film as any actor or director with whom they collaborate.

The art of the casting director receives a warm and fitting tribute by Donahue and his team as Casting By explores the legacy of one of the profession’s pioneers, Marion Dougherty. Dougherty’s name might be unfamiliar to even the most serious of film buffs—I had never heard of her before seeing the film—but her influence on the cinema is obvious after just a few scenes. Through Donahue’s interviews with Dougherty, who passed away in 2011, Casting By reveals a shrewd talent with an intuitive mind.

Dougherty explains her early days working in television in the 1960s. It was a time when the Dream Factory of the Hollywood was changing and the star system was running out of fumes. Typecasting, contracts, and cinematic regurgitation made casting directors somewhat redundant up until that point because casting a film was more about lubricating the Hollywood machinery than about finding the right fit for parts. The overall wave of change in cinema at the time helped—or was helped by—people like Marion Dougherty who looked beyond classically beautiful leads and made stars out of true actors.

Casting By offers testimony from a star-studded array of actors and directors whose careers were shaped by Marion Dougherty’s creativity. A-list Oscar winners like Robert Redford, Al Pacino, and Jeff Bridges (just to name a few) offer fond, yet insightful, anecdotes about early meetings with Dougherty that helped define the cinema as it is today. For example, Glenn Close, who makes some of the more persuasive remarks in the film, notes how she bombed an early reading, yet Dougherty called her back because she saw something in her worth pursuing. Dougherty found inner qualities to match the characters of the script, which sounds common today but seemed audacious decades ago.

Similarly, a prominent chapter of Casting By explores a turning point in both Dougherty’s career and in cinema itself. Who, Casting By asks, can image Midnight Cowboy without Jon Voight or Dustin Hoffman? The circumstances of pre-production put ample faith in Dougherty’s ability to find the right people to play Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, and Dougherty took a gamble on unknown, unproven stars. Voight and Hoffman didn’t have the appeal of some of the other names tossed about, but they carried in their screen presence some ineffable quality that Dougherty saw as distinct and unique. It worked, as Midnight Cowboy went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and garnered Best Actor nominations for both Voight and Hoffman. Dougherty’s work gave Midnight Cowboy two faces that still give it power today, but she didn’t even get her name in the opening credits.

Midnight Cowboy is just one example in Casting By of the work that audiences and industry peers alike take for granted when watching a film. The documentary offers interviews with many of Dougherty’s peers and protégés in addition to the actors and directors. Casting directors such as Lynn Stalmaster, Juliet Taylor, and Ellen Chenoweth describe their seemingly obscure role in both the art and the business of making films. Like Dougherty, they provide stories that illuminate a creative process that goes into casting a film, especially when a casting director finds a face that fits the role, but not the director’s vision for the role.

The imagination and resourcefulness of the casting director are evident in some of the choices noted in Casting By. Take, for example, the kid in the “dueling banjos” scene from Deliverance. He didn’t fit director John Boorman’s alleged request to fill the role with an albino, but the boy that Lynn Stalmaster found for the part has a backwoods vibe that is so spot-on it remains effectively creepy forty years later. People don’t remember Deliverance for Burt Reynolds.

Similarly, testimony from and about Marion Dougherty shows that casting directors helped usher in waves of change into the old Hollywood system. One revealing moment of Casting By chronicles Dougherty’s efforts casting Lethal Weapon and sees director Richard Donner recall his surprise over Dougherty’s suggestion that Danny Glover play Roger. “But the character isn’t black,” Donner remembers saying when comparing the actor to the script. The gap between Donner’s interpretation and Dougherty’s interpretation of the appropriate actor demonstrates the influence that a casting director can have not just on the artistic vision of a film, but also on the evolution of the industry as a whole.

Perhaps the invisibility of the casting director’s role—versus the more obvious mark of an editor or a cinematographer with a cut or a pan, respectively—leads the work of people like Marion Dougherty to go unrecognized in film. Casting By also gives time to the other side of the argument and lets peers in the industry explain that casting, although a valuable contribution to the creative process of making a film, is not a form of directing and, hence, not an appropriate role for the credit of “Casting Director.” Taylor Hackford, for example, gives a fair rationale on why people in the casting business should be credited as “Casting By,” saying that the final casting call rests on the film director himself. (In Hackford’s defense, his answers seem like the diplomatic responses that the president of the Directors’ Guild of America would be expected to make.) Whether one sides with ignorance or with auteur theory, though, the work of the casting director is relatively unacknowledged in film.

Many film buffs, however, will surely agree that people like Marion Dougherty have made a significant impact to film when they see the roster of familiar faces talking up her influence on the industry. The fact that Donahue assembles so many stars for a Talking Heads-style film demonstrates Dougherty’s success: These actors are now people of authority. They are actors who have achieved noteworthy success in the industry and many of them might not have a spot on the A-List had someone like Marion Dougherty not taken a chance on them in the early days of their careers. The stars would be much different if they were chosen by studio execs alone.

Casting enjoys an imperceptible quality when it’s done right—if all the faces seem to fit, or if they are believable, then the casting director has done his or her part well. Casting By reveals the innovation that goes into filling a film with the right faces to make it effective and keep it fresh. The collaborative process that goes into making a film is generally well known, but the prevalence of authorship in film discourse doesn't let the team share the wealth as much as it should. The film, while showing how forward thinkers like Marion Dougherty helped change the business, could be an ultimate nail in the coffin for auteur theory since it ends by noting that assuming credit for casting is not something a director can easily take. A director is the generally the key creative lead, but the director is not the only creative lead. Film is simply too collaborative a work to allow for easy credit. Casting By is a must-see for all film buffs, really, as it affords a slice of film history rarely put to print. Casting By gives credits that are long overdue.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Casting By screens in Ottawa at The Mayfair August 2-4.