“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 films.
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 up.
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).