Meet Marion Dougherty
The casting director is one of the unsung heroes of the motion picture industry. In this film by Tom Donahue we learn of the importance of the casting director and we go back to a time when studios simply had to keep their contract players working and move up to today’s talent-based approach. The emphasis here is on Marion Dougherty who changed the role of the job and revolutionized casting by adapting it into the art of handpicking the best actor to fill a role. She has worked with some of Hollywood’s most recognizable talent, and here we get to hear about the time she cast her breakout role as well as her rejections.
This is an esoteric film that seems to be made for lovers of film by film lovers. We get a fascinating glimpse into a seldom-considered part of the filmmaking process, and director Donahue does so with incredible archival footage, fascinating interviews, and crisp, stunning, colorized photos of Hollywood in its heyday. Marion Dougherty made a career out of giving actors a shot when she had a gut feeling about them. We need to give the film the same shot.
The film is a love song to Dougherty who is legendary in the industry. Before she came into her own, the major studios just cast the Actors they had under exclusive Contracts allocating them roles based on their availability rather than their talent. As that era ended New York based Ms Dougherty started persuading Directors to used real theater actors as opposed to movie stars, and when she engineered the breakthrough of a whole series of men that were far removed from looking like classic matinee idols such as Dustin Hoffman into leading men and casting was never the same again.
We hear from actors such as Diane Lane, Robert Redford, Jim Voight, John Lithgow, Al Pacino to name a few and they testify not only did they get their first big breaks via her auspices, but it was often only after her sheer persistence persuading many initially reluctant Directors. To their credit these same Directors testified how indebted they were to her sheer dogged determination to get an actor a role, because she was always right. Martin Scorsese states that at least 90% of directing a movie is the casting.
Dougherty’s career spanned some 50 years and went from being independent in New York to being vice president of Casting at Paramount and then Warner Brothers in Hollywood. And in a field dominated by women, many of today’s leading casting started their careers as Marion’s assistants.
No matter how instrumental she was in the success of a movie it was years before she, and others, were ever given a screen credit for their role. And even then, the Directors Guild, led by a very bitter Taylor Hackford, disputed their right to be called casting directors. It is the only major function in movie making that does not qualify for an Oscar (the Emmy’s acknowledge them), and the saddest part of the story is when there was a very impressive campaign by what is essentially Hollywood royalty pleading with the Academy to award Marion an Honorary Oscar for her lifetime achievement, the Board of Governors refused.
Today movie making is all about money making by huge corporation and it is very unlikely that any casting director today will be able to launch another unknown Bette Midler or Glenn Close or Danny Glover into stardom, and that is sad. When Marion Dougherty died in 2011, her instinctive way of casting died too.
Donahue’s documentary covers Dougherty’s prolific career from her beginnings as a casting assistant, to a casting assistant on television, to her own casting agency, to becoming President of Casting for some major studios. While idolizing Dougherty, the documentary also provides an understanding of just what a casting director does. “Dougherty was one of the best as many of her colleagues will attest. Dougherty discusses her process from how she evaluates and remembers each person she meets, how she sneaks in her choices and wears down a director until they cast who she thought was right for the part and how she fought to get casting directors the credit they deserved. It was only in the last forty years or so that casting directors began receiving a “Casting By” on-screen credit”.