Review: Casting By

As everyone knows, movies are a collaborative art form, and while critics tend to judge their quality based on reductionist criteria concerning direction, writing, and acting, more often than not our opinions are shaped by more prosaic choices. As Martin Scorsese says near the beginning of this fascinating documentary, 90 percent of any film comes down to casting, a job we tend to think of as being purely administrative, though, as a parade of famous directors and actors attest in dozens of in-person interviews here, matching the right talent to a role is an art form in and of itself.

The doc’s director, Tom Donahue, centers his story on the woman who many believe invented the job, Marion Dougherty, who started out in the 1950s as an assistant to the person who basically found actors for Kraft Television Theater, one of the live dramatic TV shows that proliferated during the early days of the medium. At the time, TV was still mainly in New York, and thus the people who found actors had a whole city of them, thanks to the New York theater scene. When her boss quit, the job fell to Dougherty, who made a point of reading the scripts and then finding actors who she thought were right for the parts, rather than simply bodies to fill space. Though her creativity was not acknowledged by the larger artistic community, it was appreciated by those in the TV business, and eventually she went freelance and worked on pioneering shows like Naked City and Route 66, in the process discovering the likes of James Dean, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Jean Stapleton, Christopher Walken, and, most notoriously, Jon Voight, who so badly screwed up his debut chance on Naked City that he couldn’t find a job for years until Dougherty rediscovered him and suggested him for Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, a part for which the producers wanted Michael Sarazzin. But perhaps the most illustrative anecdote about the importance of Dougherty’s instinct was her advising Warren Beatty to lose his Brando affectations. And while it was west coast casting director (a professional term that had yet to be invented) Lyn Stalmaster who bucked the system by pushing the short, Jewish Hoffman for Benjamin Braddock, who in the novel of The Graduate was Waspy and athletic, it was Dougherty who got him the part of Ratso Rizzo, which may have been even more visionary given that Hoffman’s own manager thought the role would destroy his client’s momentum.

Donahue makes a convincing case that the advent of the New Hollywood of the late 60s and 70s was the result of creative casting choices, with Dougherty and her brownstone full of female acolytes handling the New York school and Stalmaster holding down Los Angeles. The common wisdom holds that during the Hollywood studio era, casting was pre-determined by acting types, but once the studios collapsed it became a free-for-all, and casting directors were extremely valuable, despite the somewhat pompous protestations of directors guild head Taylor Hackford, who has always lobbied against the term “casting director,” since, to him, only the person designated a film’s “director” deserves such a moniker because all decisions about a movie come down to that person. Almost every other director Donahue interviews disagrees, including Woody Allen, who confesses he is so intimidated by meeting new people that he couldn’t do the work he does without a casting director. Even Clint Eastwood admits that he finds casting the most confounding process in filmmaking since there is just so much talent out there and sifting through it all is impossible. The directors also despair that casting doesn’t have its own Oscar category given its importance in the process, but apparently the prejudice is stubborn. Despite a campaign to give Dougherty a special Oscar in the 90s that was endorsed by dozens of superstar directors she didn’t receive one. 

Still, once the doc enters the 80s and the age of the blockbuster, the movie loses a certain amount of credibility and the important casting decisions that stand out, such as Dougherty pushing Danny Glover for the Lethal Weapon franchise despite the fact that the part wasn’t necessarily written with a Black man in mind, seem more like one-offs than trends that were maintained. Dougherty died in 2011 and the doc was first released the following year, so many of these interviews sound and look dated. Donahue doesn’t cover much in the way of post-millennial casting decisions, which seem to have reverted to a system where big names are the norm even if they don’t match the roles. Another topic missing from the story is how sex figured in casting decisions in the past. The #metoo movement wasn’t at large in 2012, and has since brought to light a problem that was always snickered about but relegated to the shadows. Donahue doesn’t address it at all, but so many of the younger casting directors (almost all women) he interviewed certainly must have worked with Harvey Weinstein at one time, and we now know what he thought about the casting process.

Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum, Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Casting By home page in Japanese

photo (c) Casting By 2012

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