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L.A. Film Fest Review: 'Casting By' Is A Warm Tribute & Thanks To The Often Overlooked Work Of The Casting Director

by Katie Walsh
June 24, 2013 7:06 PM
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Here’s an interesting fact revealed in Tom Donahue’s documentary “Casting By”: casting directors are the only opening single card credit that does not receive its own Academy Award nomination. It’s an interesting fact, but also sort of a depressing one, as this film reveals not just how integral casting directors are to the creative process of filmmaking, but really how important they have been in shaping the history of American cinema. This film seeks to highlight the publicly under-appreciated casting directors and to pay tribute to the one woman who evolved the position of the casting director, its role in the filmmaking process, and in doing so, had a dramatic effect on some of the most important and influential films of the 20th century.

Marion Dougherty had dreams of being an actress in college before she moved to New York and found work assisting a friend casting the televised theater show “Kraft,” in the early days of television, in the late 1940s. Marion had an eye not just for talent but for a person’s energy, sitting down and talking with them and keeping detailed notes about them on 3x5 cards, and going to bat for those actors she really believed in (a fellow by the name of James Dean). After her tenure on “Kraft,” she started casting the 1960s TV show “Naked City,” a gritty and realistic cop drama, which was the perfect showcase for the Actor's Studio-trained, psychologically complex, internally rich actors that found themselves working in theater in New York, including Jon Voight and Robert Duvall (who suggested to Dougherty she check out his roommate, Dustin Hoffman). The archival footage of these young actors in their first roles is a treat, too.

The list of actors who owe their careers to Dougherty is too long and legendary to even mention—just think of every good actor you know who got their start in the 50s or 60s and she may have had a 3x5 index card on them. Many are interviewed for the film, including Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, etc., and many of them are genuinely emotional about the role that Marion played in changing their lives. Voight, in particular, is awed by Marion’s belief in him, after she fought for him to be cast in “Midnight Cowboy” after he was particularly bad in an episode of “Naked City.” Many filmmakers and producers mention how Marion brought attention to actors they would never have considered, or fought for a particular person they had earlier dismissed.

Of course there are other casting directors besides Marion interviewed as well, such as Lynn Stalmaster, who was working on the West Coast and was the first casting director to receive the title card “Casting By” in the “The Thomas Crowne Affair.” Marion’s assistants and apprentices who have gone on to their own fruitful careers in casting are also on hand to flesh out the details. As the film traces the increasingly important role of the casting director in the process, it also traces the fight for the casting directors to receive credit for their work, receiving individual title cards, being called “director” (the DGA didn’t like that so much, and Taylor Hackford, former DGA president emerges as a bit of a villain in his staunch adherence to the idea that the director is the only person making the final creative decisions on a film), and of course the Academy award issue. And the film seeks to remedy this in its illustration of just how much casting directors have helped not only actors and directors, but truly affected the course of film history in its transition from the studio system to the independent contractors way of making films. If it weren’t for eagle-eyed Marion Dougherty (or any other casting director for that matter), some of our most indelible and influential performers may have never gotten their big breaks, and some of our most important films may have been completely different. “Casting By,” which will air on HBO in August, is a warm and emotional thank you and tribute to this extremely important and often overlooked work. [B+]

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More: L.A. Film Fest, Casting By, Reviews, Review

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  • Harris Reed | June 24, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Most actors are cast by a director or producer. In that sense, the title is casting director is misleading, and perhaps shouldn't be an above the title credit.

  • M | June 25, 2013 12:34 PM

    Actually, Harris, that's not true at all. With rare exception, every single actor, from leads to supporting to extras, is vetted by the casting director. There's a lot more to the process than the director just saying "I want this actor." I recommend you see the film to gain better insight into what goes into it. As you'll see, most directors and producers know and appreciate that casting directors are an integral part of the process.

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