“Casting By”: Dougherty’s One Woman Film Revolution

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What makes a film great? Is it the direction? The writing? How about the quality of the acting? Like many moviegoers, these are the features that generally draw my attention. What I have been unaware of until now, is the possible influence casting directors have on a film’s end result. Casting By (2012), directed by Tom Donahue, focuses on this often ignored role, and one of the most influential players in the game, Marion Dougherty. Dougherty turned the role of casting director into a truly creative position, and championed the likes of then unknown actors such as James Dean, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Glenn Close.

Although the film also looks briefly at the influence of other casting directors such as Lynn Stalmaster, this is really Dougherty’s show. We see how Dougherty got her start casting for Kraft Television Theatre (1947-58) and later moved up into casting for television series Naked City (1958-63), before breaking into film. Her sharp eye, and keen sense for sniffing out potential helped her gain the trust of noted directors such as Woody Allen and George Roy Hill who took her advice on who to cast, even if it was contrary to their own opinion.

Dougherty certainly made waves. In a time when actors were on studio contracts, and were cast depending on their appearance, rather than ability, Dougherty shook up the scene. She brought in people who lacked traditional Hollywood looks but possessed outstanding talent. Not only did she provide big breaks and second chances to some of Hollywood’s big players, she was also a mentor to others in the industry. She started a casting company, Marion Dougherty Associates, and took young women under her wing, training them and imparting on them knowledge that would lead them to become reputable casting directors themselves.

I loved hearing Dougherty’s impressions of the young actors who she made stars. An industry veteran, Dougherty exudes an aura of wisdom when interviewed about her work. The film also features tons of interviews from Hollywood elite, many of whom testify to Dougherty’s impact on their lives. Bette Midler attributes Dougherty with getting her out to New York where she made it big.

Perhaps Dougherty’s biggest contribution was her championing of Jon Voight for the lead role in Midnight Cowboy (1969). Dougherty thought he would be perfect for the role, and fought tooth and nail to have him cast when the director and studio were set on Michael Sarrazin. When Sarrazin was unavailable, director John Schlesinger bowed to Dougherty’s wish to cast Voight, an unknown at the time. The movie was a success, and went on to win three Oscars.

Casting By is a beautiful ode to Dougherty’s work, with one misstep. Towards the end, the film takes a sharp turn away from tribute territory, and swiftly turns into a petition for an honorary Oscar. This rubbed me the wrong way and I think cheapened the whole viewing experience. Rather than being strictly about Dougherty and her indisputable influence, its focus shifted to the apparent callousness of an Academy who refused to recognize her. Call me selfish, but while it is unfortunate that casting directors may never get their time in the sun, it is far from an outrage. Despite this weak ending, Casting By was a joy to watch. It provided a rare glimpse into the casting process, and highlighted the work of a Hollywood maverick. A cinephile’s documentary at heart, the film accomplishes its mission in shinning light on Dougherty and other casting directors’ incredible contributions to the Hollywood pantheon.