A tribute to the late pioneering casting director Marion Dougherty and, in the bargain, a full-throated appeal for the Acad to finally recognize casting as an official Oscar category, “Casting By” recounts in lively fashion the development of this little-understood craft. Director Tom Donahue’s straight-ahead docu is distinguished by remarkable film clips, particularly some from TV’s first golden age, and a formidable talking-heads roster including casting directors and stars from Clint Eastwood to Glenn Close to Jeff Bridges to Robert Redford and beyond. Pic-oriented cablers and specialty homevid labels are likely buyers.
During classical Hollywood’s reign, there was little need for casting specialists at the studios, given the fixed order of the star system and the supporting thesps under them, who were slotted into projects according to type. TV was a different matter, and Dougherty, a New Yorker through and through, found rich potential in offering her services to the Gotham-based networks and producers who wanted to tap into the extraordinary talent pool emerging from New York theater in the 1950s. She spotted the promise of James Dean and Warren Beatty, for example, when they were young and raw, and audition clips here offer glimpses of the stars they would become (even if Beatty’s Brando-esque mumbling can barely be understood).
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The list of then-nobodies is amazing, and a testament to Dougherty’s uncommon ability to spot talent a mile away: To mention a mere few, Robert Duvall, Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Rod Steiger, Jack Klugman and, in one of her greatest triumphs, Dustin Hoffman all found their way onto shows Dougherty cast (“Naked City,” “Route 66”) and/or to Hollywood contract status. More impressively, even when some of them delivered poor readings or poorer performances, Dougherty was able to spot future potential and look beyond the flaws of the moment. She also benefited from a close relationship with Duvall, who brought her a bevy of strong New York actors.
Donahue sets up a fellow helmer, Taylor Hackford, as something of a heavy here: Hackford, speaking for the Directors Guild of America, argues that the term “casting director” is a misnomer, since they “don’t direct … there’s only one director on a set.” Hackford, being consistent, even objects to the common term “director of photography,” which may strike some viewers as an extreme stance, but nevertheless reflects a mainstream sentiment in the DGA. Donahue, however, places Hackford in a minority position by including several helmers (Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Eastwood, Redford) who argue for and have fought for Oscar status for casting, the only standalone screen credit without such status. This is a stacked deck, and not the film’s best touch.
Dougherty’s rise to the top of the casting game saw her boutique shingle in New York become a training ground for a younger generation of future casting directors, and a home away from home for a talent lineup ranging from Christopher Walken to Woody Allen (whose great comedy “Bananas” is addressed at length here). The presence that haunts “Casting By,” though, is late director George Roy Hill, with whom Dougherty had some of her greatest successes, including “The World of Henry Orient,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting.” On another Hill production, “Hawaii,” Dougherty spotted a young Bette Midler performing in Honolulu and got her a job that paid her way to New York, one of the pic’s myriad lovely anecdotes of struggling actors saved from oblivion.
“Casting By” also proves a cautionary tale on how the industry allows its older, more experienced members to fade away: Lured away from her beloved Gotham by Paramount to head the studio’s casting department, Dougherty was eventually let go unceremoniously in 1999 by her next employer, Warners, despite an astonishing career.
Donahue’s access is nothing short of awesome — it begins to feel as if there’s nobody he can’t get oncamera — as is his capacity for pulling together archival material. He’s generous enough in his coverage to devote time away from Dougherty to Lyn Stalmaster, the first casting director to receive a standalone screen credit. Tech support is fine, if not especially striking.