HBO’s ‘Casting By’ Highlights Film’s Creative Rapports

I don’t think we do [the job] for the pat on the back. But when you are at a premiere, or a cast and crew screening… and they mention every single department head and ask them to stand except the casting director, you kind of go “Agh!”

Casting director Debra Zane

“You’re humbled by someone who sees something in you before you even see it in yourself.” Danny Glover’s heartfelt genuflection to casting directors is of a piece with the other observations in the documentary Casting By. Premiering on HBO 5 August, Tom Donahue’s film assembles many such reflections by well-known filmmakers, with some phrasings more original than others. “More than 90% of directing a picture is the right casting,” asserts Martin Scorsese. “I rely very much on casting director’s input,” adds Robert De Niro. “I don’t like casting,” says Woody Allen, in his version of how crucial he finds his longtime collaborator, casting director Juliet Taylor, “I don’t like to meet people in any area.”

Meeting people, and understanding ahead of time how they might work with a group of other people on screen, is the casting director’s job. This means knowing the filmmaker as well as the actor, and also conceiving the project before it’s quite conceived by many others working on it. In the case of Marion Dougherty, the casting director who is this film’s focus, that conception was frequently innovative. As Glover and director Richard Donner recall, her insistence that the actor was right for Lethal Weapon was something of a curveball. “But he’s black!” Donner remembers exclaiming to Doughtery when she suggested Glover for Murtaugh. When the off-screen audience laughs during this archival footage, Donner raises his finger and schools them: “Not funny, pretty frigging frightening.”

The lesson here has to do with racism in the industry, of course, that parts not specified by race were and remain “white” in most filmmakers’ minds. But it also has to do with how such assumptions can change. Donner fills out the conversation with Dougherty in an interview for Donahue’s film, narrating how she schooled him: “He’s black, so what?” Donner goes on, “I shrank,” then describes how he came to see that casting this “sensational actor” would “be a good opportunity to play the other end of the scale.” As Donner sums up that Marion “just made the greatest team since Abbott and Costello,” you’re aware that she also helped to establish a lucrative, politically complex, enduring genre, the interracial buddy movie.

Dougherty was able to do this — to “see something” not only in Glover but also in the filmmaking system of 1987 — because she was enormously respected as a casting director since the 1960s. Casting By chronicles her particular shaping of the job (“She owned that position,” says Al Pacino, whom Dougherty cast in his first starring film role, in Panic in Needle Park). She worked for decades in New York (on Kraft Television Theatre, and later on Naked City and Route 66, honing her skill at finding actors who embodied a place and time. In this, Dougherty helped to change the functions of casting director, even to give the position a name (as the work was for decades not credited or only listed as “casting by”). Before Marion, notes historian Janine Basinger, studios used their contract players, and casting associates might come up with “grocery lists of ideas with no particular point of view.” Dougherty and the many casting directors whom she inspired and mentored brought individual perspectives and specific creative energies to their jobs.

As Dougherty and other casting directors put it, they are interested in advancing and developing actors, not making movie stars in the old-fashioned sense. And several of those actors tell their stories here: Glenn Close recalls that despite her “terrible reading,” Dougherty helped to get her cast in The World According to Garp; Jon Voight extols Dougherty’s efforts to cast him for Midnight Cowboy, Robert Duvall suggests his gratitude for being cast in some early roles in New York, and Ronnie Cox — guitar in arms — remembers the perfection of casting Billy Redden as the banjo-playing boy in Deliverance, though he was not director John Boorman’s first choice.

But even as these stories suggest the profound effects of casting directors on individual careers and iconic films and TV shows, Casting By hints at another story. This is the story of casting directors’ particular place in the industry, and Dougherty’s early shaping of that experience, in large part by her decision to hire only women for Marion Dougherty Associates, located in a New York townhouse (by way of illustration, the film resorts here and elsewhere to some awkward reenactments, anonymous, artfully shadowed body parts typing or looking through files). To this day, casting directors are mostly women, a fact sometimes explained away by stereotypes, for instance, saying that women are more “intuitive” or more “empathetic,” characterizing the job in a way that allows it to remain unacknowledged by, say, the Academy Awards.

Casting By doesn’t unpack the politics of this dilemma, though it offers up examples of the opposed positions: one sequence has Taylor Hackford insisting that directors make the decisions, followed by casting director Deborah Aquila observing, “But isn’t everything the director’s decision,” from makeup and hair to editing and performing? Bits of interviews with John Sayles and Paul Haggis here counter Hackford’s thinking, noting that because all film is so collaborative, it’s hard to know what an editor or director of photography has done on any given film. That doesn’t mean, they both conclude, that awards for these jobs are not warranted, but rather that all films are products of complicated, imaginative relationships, and that each facet deserves recognition.

With the election of the Academy’s first black female president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and the creation, at long last, of a branch for casting directors within the Academy. At the same time, as Casting By points out, the movie business is becoming more corporate and less personal, with big budget casting decisions increasingly the province of dealmakers. Recognizing and appreciating the work of casting directors may be one way to stem that tide, however briefly.

RATING 7 / 10