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Whatever Wednesday: ‘Casting By’

Casting By is a documentary about the thankless task of casting the right actor for a role in a movie. Admittedly this is not a documentary for everybody. But I would recommend anyone who loves movies to see it only because it’s filled with little anecdotes and bits of off-the-screen trivia film lovers treasure.

Tom Donahue looks at the history of casting while also making a case as to why this oft-ignored aspect of filmmaking should be taken more seriously. The film looks at two casting directors specifically, Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stalmaster, as well as some others. But primarily Donahue focuses on Marion and how she has gone on to discover an entire generation of actors.

Though released in 2013, the Hollywood landscape it was documenting was going through another tectonic shift, the rise of superheroes and studio conglomerates. Donahue briefly gives us a history of the old Hollywood studio system and how they cast more for type than the best actor for the role. The rise of casting directors came from the advent of television.

Networks needed programs and needed actors for their programs. Enter Marion Dougherty, hired by “Kraft Television Theatre” to find actors for their script. Gradually Marion went from the woman suggesting actors to the woman who was responsible for casting the roles. Then came “The Naked City,” which allowed Marion an unprecedented chance to choose the actors, and the rest they say is history.

The structure of Casting By isn’t all that interesting or groundbreaking. A sea of talking heads telling amusing and interesting anecdotes as they go over unrecorded Hollywood History. But that’s the real draw of the documentary. It’s seeing all the old footage of stars before they made it big. Seeing a young Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Gene Hackman, and a young mumbling Warren Beatty as they play bit parts or big parts anything to get their foot in the door. Donahue even gets Voight to open up about his first onscreen performance.

Voight eviscerates himself and talks about how awful he felt that he let Marion down after she fought to give him a chance. Later on, she would fight for him again for his role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. In a way, it’s like an intimate behind-the-scenes look into the unwritten pages of Hollywood history. A sort of off-book journey usually ignored because of its lack of titillating or scandalous details.

While Donahue tries to focus on casting directors overall such as Lynn Stalmaster, a west coast version of Marion, he can’t help but focus on Marion if only because of the sheer amount of talent she discovered. Stalmaster is no slouch himself, with stars such as John Travolta and directors like Norman Jewison singing his praises. Travolta talks about how Stalmaster fought for him and looked out for him to the point of finding him a bit role in the film so he could stay in LA long enough to audition for a television show called “Welcome Back, Kotter”. 

But there’s no mistaking Donahue’s love of Dougherty—a woman so talented and so beloved from within the industry that when George Roy Hill won the Oscar for Best Director for The Sting he thanked Marion in his acceptance speech. “How could I miss? I had Newman. I had Redford. I had Dougherty.” Marion the first-ever casting director to be acknowledged at the academy awards.

Donahue talks to a range of directors and producers about casting, and all of them sing Marion’s praises, but some argue whether or not casting directors even deserve credit. Others, like Taylor Hackford, even go so far as to even say that the word “director” should be struck completely from the title. 

Hackford is in the minority as directors such as Clint Eastwood, John Sayles, and Martin Scorsese defend casting directors and even argue that casting should have its own Oscar. “More than 90% of directing a picture is the right casting,” Scorsese says. Like an editor or cinematographer, they can alter the fate of any movie.

What separates Dougherty and Stalmaster from studio casting directors and even the old school studio system is the almost anti-capitalist way they approach casting. “The most important thing for a casting director is to love actors and to be interested in them.” They are not looking for the most bankable star, remember this is in a time before corporations swallowed the whole of popular culture, so much as the actor who most fits the part.

This means the people they cast look more like people rather than models. It may seem odd now but at the time the mere notion that Dustin Hoffman, a short Jewish man, might be considered any kind of a sex symbol was outrageous. To put into context how much has changed, Donahue reminds us that Micahel Bay cast from a Victoria Secret’s magazine. 

Rose Huntington-Whiteley is a model, chosen because of her looks, much like how casting worked before the fall of the studio systems. Not quite like the old days. Back then they would enroll you in a class and teach you how to ride horses, dance, and how to hit your mark. 

However, Donahue never interrogates one glaring question, “Why is everyone in this documentary white?” Although we are told Marion fought for Cicely Tyson, the producers or Donahue never talk to Tyson or any Black actor or producer. Instead, they use Tyson as the lone Black face in a sea of alabaster whiteness. 

Even as Donahue and team talk to Marion’s proteges, all women and all-white, the subject of the prevailing whiteness is never broached. That is until we get to Lethal Weapon. The director, Richard Donner, confesses that it was Marion who suggested Danny Glover for the character of Roger Murtaugh. 

Donner’s response was, “But he’s black.” He goes on to say that Marion’s rebuttal of “So, he’s black. So what,” caused him to realize he had been reading white into characters that had no color on the page. We see footage of Donner recounting the story in a speech. The audience laughs when he tells them what he said.

His face is appalled. “It’s not funny. It’s frightening.” Donner admits to being prejudiced in a way that he had never realized he had been. Donahue even talks to Glover as he talks about the effect it had on his career. At the time Glover was known but by no means a success. Dougherty’s belief that he was the right actor changed both Donner and Glover.

How many other projects Marion suggested POC is never elaborated on. Nor is it commented on how many times she was shot down or ignored. By 1987 Hollywood was beginning to change, had been changing for a few years, and people like Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stalmaster were becoming irritating relics.

Or maybe Dougherty began to realize her own mistakes and tried in some small way to change a system rooted from the inside out. We don’t know because Donahue and his producers never explore it outside Lethal Weapon. Presumably, because they are not interested in telling the story or just as probable because no one is willing to talk. After all, it is only recently that we are starting to learn of stories such as one producer’s refusal to cast Salma Hayek in a science-fiction movie because “there are no Mexicans in outer space.”

Casting By is also tainted by its inclusion of Woody Allen. The documentary came out in 2013 well after Allen’s allegations had been publicly known. Dougherty and her company’s continual professional relationship with him are never examined or even broached. Another black mark on an otherwise fascinating peek behind the curtains.

Still, it’s hard not to feel your heart break when Scorsese and others petition the academy to give Dougherty a lifetime achievement award only to have them be rejected. Marion Dougherty, the woman who cast every role in The Sting, each with her first choice of actor for each role. A feat that is marveled at by other casting directors, producers, and other directors. The woman deserves a statue for that alone.

“That’s the ultimate experience of a casting director who is so equipped in their knowledge of actors and their understanding of the material that they’re able to make a single choice and have it completely succeed.” Casting By shines a light on Marion and others to remind us that IPs and data sheets will only get you so far. Marion Dougherty is an unsung icon and a major part of Hollywood history, as are countless other casting directors then and now. 

Image courtesy of Submarine Deluxe

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Author

  • Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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