Film Review: Casting By

Delicious insider tales of the making of some of your favorite films enrich this wonderfully informative and entertaining doc about casting directors.

Right from the top, Martin Scorsese makes the oh-so-true observation that the right casting is 90% of any director's job. To do this, he requires the aid of the casting director, and it is this relatively unsung profession that is the focus of this enthralling documentary by Tom Donahue. Casting By also happens to be an informal history of film, dating back to the late 1960s through the New Golden Age of movies in the 1970s, when directorial visions were allowed to run free, then the 1980s and later, when corporations took over the industry, squelching creativity for commerce.

Through it all, casting director Marion Dougherty, who began in live television in the 1950s and practically invented the profession as we know it today, held justifiable sway. The film is an unabashed celebration of her and is filled with some of the biggest names in film, extolling her and others who do her kind of work. An unerring eye for talent and instinct for untapped potential were what she brought to the table, qualities shared by her estimable colleague, Lyn Stalmaster. Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park, Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John Travolta in “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Glenn Close and John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, and Robert De Niro are just a few of the stars who got their first big break because of these two. The movie abounds with rich anecdotes of the battles endured before plum, career-changing roles were set; the preparation for Garp is intriguing, especially when you see that the other possibilities for the transsexual role of Roberta Muldoon, besides Lithgow, included William Hurt, Victor Garber and Jeff Daniels.

Operating out of a charming Manhattan brownstone, the tireless Dougherty kept meticulous files on all the actors she saw. Not all of them would score with their first opportunity, as Voight attests, having been particularly lousy in an early TV show, but Dougherty had enough forgiveness and belief in his talent to push for him for Midnight Cowboy. A risible ancient TV reel of Warren Beatty shows the actor, obviously under the spell of Brando, mumbling his lines unintelligibly. While casting the film Hawaii, Dougherty encountered an insanely ambitious young Bette Midler, whom she put in a bonnet to disguise her Jewishness and cast as a missionary. It was with the money Midler earned from that film that she came to New York to eventually conquer show biz.

When it time to cast the actor opposite Gibson in Lethal Weapon, Dougherty suggested Glover, whereupon director Richard Donner said, "He's black!" "So what?" she answered, and Donner later acknowledges that she not only changed the film completely, she changed his life as well, for he had never realized his own inherent bigotry. Such acumen is what made Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members push for a special Oscar to be given Dougherty, an attempt which failed despite all the prominent names supporting it. It had to be a "special" Oscar because casting director is the only main-title credit on a film that does not have its own separate award category. It is no secret that the ultra-touchy Directors Guild of America has long been a chief opponent of such recognition. Among those interviewed is former Guild president Taylor Hackford, obviously a hardcore believer in the auteur theory in its purest sense, who is adamantly averse to the idea of such an award category. (Hackford even has a problem with the title "director of photography.")

By the 1980s, a lot of the fun—and artistry—had gone out of the business and Dougherty, who became head of casting at Paramount, felt the crunch when, not getting along with its president, Michael Eisner, she accepted an offer from Warner Bros. but was later fired. The firing was done in a typically Hollywood, ageist and cold-blooded fashion, and though it must have hurt, she was outwardly wry and philosophical about it. Perhaps she was even a little relieved, for projects like See Spot Run were certainly a far, lowly cry from Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy.

While casting directors may still lack the proper respect they deserve from certain quarters (even the ever-abrasive Joy Behar, on her gabfest “The View,” is shown insultingly whining, "What next? An award for the garbage collector?"), Casting By makes a clear and very impressive case for the profession. And while Dougherty may not have won that little naked gold man, this film stands as fitting, beautiful tribute to her.