Films to Watch: Casting By

There are so many things to love about the new HBO documentary “Casting By” by Tom Donahue.

 First, it opens as a slice of New York history looking at the cities “Golden Age” of television – live television, that is – where the pressures of putting on a live show each week or, in some cases each day, required an influx of new talent and provided a certain freedom to that talent. It was in this environment that my mentor Kenny Utt flourished, just across town from a young gal hired away from her job of dressing store windows to help find actors for a new television show – the fabulous Marion Dougherty.

If the name isn’t familiar there’s a good reason why but we’ll get to that in a bit. Marion Dougherty invented the job of casting director. Period. As a young woman hired to fill the roles of a live show for Kraft she did what a responsible, creative and organized person would do. She realized that she needed to examine the pool of talent available to her and to create an inventory of them to go to when she was under deadline. Fortunately for her she was in New York, where there was no shortage of new young talent flooding in to look for work on Broadway and in that new medium of television.

Fortunately for her producers, directors, the audiences of those shows and for us, Marion had an innate sense of acting talent. As John Voight explains in the documentary, “She saw things that no one else saw.” That keen eye coupled with a deep understanding of the dramatic material she was casting led to the discovery of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors. The list includes, Al Pacino, James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Diane Lane, Glenn Close… and it just goes on from there. Marion was the first person to receive a Casting credit on a film or television show. Her office in New York was a buzz of activity in the 60s and early 70s. It was the place where many of the directors and actors who would become household names would connect. She cast iconic films like Midnight Cowboy, Lenny and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid among her nearly 100 credits and many more that she received no credit for.

On a personal note, I got the chance to watch Marion work in 1991 when Nancy and I did the film Dogfight for Warner Bros. The role of “Rose” was really tough to cast in that film and Marion did a search for unknowns, and also brought in a handful of what would become the top female talent of the 90s. But that’s just what Marion did. She brought in a short list of top choices for each part – every single speaking role – and each one was right, but for a different reason. As Nancy says, “I was like a kid in a candy store. Marion’s first choice for each part was the one we went with.” Among her “finds” in that film was a handsome young kid named Brendan Fraser getting his first line on camera. Watching the documentary, I understood what Woody Allen and others meant when they said Marion made you “feel safe”. Inside her office, you were protected from the craziness of the filmmaking process. You were guaranteed to be concerned only about the material and finding the absolute best actors for each and every spoken line in your movie.

The documentary also includes the legendary Lynn Stalmaster, Marion’s counterpart in Los Angeles, who sensing the need for a different kind of acting talent in Hollywood, blazed the trail for casting directors out there. I never met Lynn but I’d sure like to. His enthusiasm and sheer joy for his work jumped right off the screen when he talked about finding that perfect match of actor to role.

The film turns from an amazing New York and Hollywood history with great stories of talent discovered and talent flourishing, into a search for justice and a fight against Hollywood pettiness. You see, thanks to Marion, most people have a sense of what a casting director does in some fashion but they probably couldn’t name one of them.  The reason these dedicated professionals are not as well known as people in other key film positions is simple – they are not fully recognized even in their own industry. Casting Directors are the only people who receive those single card, main title credits – the big important ones at the beginning of a film or immediately following the end of a film – who do not receive Oscar nominations. There’s no category for it, unlike, Editor, Production Designer, Cinematographer, etc, etc. I won’t go into the details of why here – the film speaks to the topic very eloquently – but this is a situation that must be corrected. One day soon it will be. And Marion Dougherty will receive that Special Oscar for dramatically changing the face of movies.

If you haven’t seen the film, please find it as soon as you can. It’s really required viewing as part of the history of film in the second half of the twentieth century. I am starting a page in the Resource area called “Films on Filmmaking” and making this one – “Casting By” – the first. Let me know what you think of the film and please recommend others you’ve encountered.

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