NYFF 2012 Review: CASTING BY Is A Heartfelt Plea To Bring Casting Directors The Recognition They Deserve

Casting By is a heartfelt plea to bring casting directors the recognition they so rightfully deserve. It is also a slice of Hollywood Pie full of big name interviews, amusing anecdotes, and little-seen footage that will leave film lovers' mouths watering.

But all of that is just the flaky crust encasing Tom Donahue's well researched doc. The warm, gooey filling is Marion Dougherty, the main focus of the film, and the woman who almost single-handedly made the role of the casting director what it is today.

In the old days a casting director would typically work for one of the studios, choosing from a database of contract players to fit a certain type: the loving father, the tough guy, the copper, the crook, the dame, the tramp, the damsel in distress. It wasn't a very creative job. At least in film. In television, there was a little more freedom, and this is something a young Dougherty took advantage of while working on shows like Kraft Television Theater and Naked City.

Dougherty didn't believe in casting by type. She would scour the New York theater scene for fresh faces; actors who could inhabit characters. She would champion actors no one wanted to take a chance on. If she thought someone was right for a part, they were right for the part. She discovered a lot of famous actors this way, many of whom she gave their first break, people like James Dean, Jon Voight, Robert Duvall, Christopher Walken, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, Bette Midler, and Gene Hackman. Casting By features interviews with most of these actors, as well as long forgotten clips of their first time appearances on camera. In some, it is obvious the actor was destined for stardom. In others ... let's just say they were lucky Dougherty believed in them.

Jon Voight, for example. He tells the story of being cast in Naked City and how horrible his performance was. Casting By has the footage to back him up, and it had the audience barking like seals. He was sure he'd never work again, yet Dougherty championed him years later for the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Voight's account is hysterical and touching, and both he and the audience went from laughter to tears in the span of 30 seconds. Casting By is filled with great moments like this.  

Dougherty moved on to film, and then to LA, where she served as the head of casting for Paramount and then Warner Bros. In her career, she cast such notable films as Lenny, The World According To Garp, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Killing Fields, Lethal Weapon, and Batman. But despite being a well-respected vet, eventually the industry obsessed with youth pushed her out. In 1991, an impressive group of actors, directors, and producers campaigned to get her a lifetime achievement Oscar, but they were denied. To this day, Casting Director is the only main title credit that doesn't have an Oscar category.

And that's really what Casting By is about: how the role of the casting director has been undervalued. And everyone from Martin Scorsese to Robert Redford to Clint Eastwood to Oliver Stone to Al Pacino to Terry Semel to Woody Allen agree it's time for a change. Everyone except for director and DGA president Taylor Hackford, that is. He is the only dissenting voice presented and frankly, he comes off as a pompous jerk.

Casting By is like crack for film lovers, documentary watchers, and industry buffs. Earlier I likened it to a pie, so I guess that makes it crack pie. Watch it with someone you love who loves film as much as you and wash it down with a tall, frosty glass of post-film discussion.  

Casting By screens Friday October 12th at the NYFF.  

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor for LitReactor.com. He also writes for ChuckPalahniuk.net. He was a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed, and is the poison pen behind thejamminjabber, although he's not so sure he should admit it.


Around the Internet:
  • billydaking

    Actually, with the exception of director and actor, the Oscar awards are geared toward the product and awarded to the person responsible for that aspect. There's no "Best Writer," but there are two screenplay awards. There's no "Best Production Designer, "Best Editor," or "Best Cinematographer," but there are "Best Production Design," "Best Film Editing," and "Best Cinematography." Making a "Best Casting Director" category would seem out of place. However, there are two

    1. "Best Cast"--honoring the film with the best overall casting performance and awarded to the casting director. This, however, may raise objections from some actors, who rightfully feel that they were the ones who did the work on the screen. On the other hand, it would be excellent to see such an award, since several films that feature strong ensemble acting sometimes have to chose between great performances across the board for nominations (see L.A. Confidential and Shawshank Redemption, just as two that spring to mind), as well as the fact that acting has a ton to do with interaction, not just soliloquies and speeches.

    2. An honorary award for casting directors, such as the Thalberg award for producers, honoring casting directors for their excellence in discovering new acting talent and great cast building. And name it after Marion Dougherty.

    Heck, do both.

  • Semantics. Just call it "Best Casting In A Motion Picture."

  • Billy DaMota

    Great review from Joshua Chaplinsky. But like the film, which poses the burning question, "Why no Oscar?", Chaplinsky misses the point, but that's because he hasn't seen the nasty inside of the casting industry as I have - for nearly 30 years, something that Daily Variety has called "Hollywood's dirty little secret."

    If the film, Chaplinsky, the CSA and the casting community want the answer to that question, they need only search as far as the ranks of the CSA. Don't blame Taylor Hackford (the DGA has never supported a casting Oscar).

    The professional work ethic that Marion Dougherty lived and breathed her whole life, and to which so many of us who have followed in her path have aspired has been abandoned by too many in the casting profession. As long as casting assistants and associates continue to be trained in a way that has them actually
    charging a fee to consider actors for work in so-called "workshops" instead of
    doing what Ms. Dougherty did every day for decades to uncover those
    diamonds amidst the coal - as a part of her job - and until casting directors recognize that supporting this scheme undermines their credibility to their peers in the industry, I'd say that the Academy Award for Best Casting will remain an elusive dream.

    My advice is that pay-for-access casting director "workshops" should be taken to task by our community. The casting profession deserves recognition by the Academy. We cannot allow a few among us to continue to set up roadblocks to that goal.

    Billy DaMota CSA

  • Well, I don't work in casting, but I do work in the industry, and have worked alongside some high-profile casting directors (a few who were even in the film). I've never once come across any such impropriety. I'm not saying it doesn't exist-- there's corruption everywhere-- but the actions of a few bad eggs shouldn't discredit an entire profession. I don't think pay workshops are the reason there isn't a casting Oscar, nor should it be.

  • Billy DaMota

    Joshua,

    If the problem - and it is a problem - with charging actors for access to casting offices was just "a few bad apples", I would agree with you wholeheartedly. When I used the word "few" above, I should have said "minority", because there are many more casting pros who do not engage in workshops than there are who do. However, right now, in 2012, there are HUNDREDS of working casting people engaged in accepting a fee to consider actors for work in the projects they're working on. Nearly every TV show, both network and cable, has a casting assistant or associate who is exploiting his or her position as a gatekeeper to provide access, and actors are paying a lot for the privilege. In fact, the latest workshop dollar figures are staggering. It has been estimated that casting director "workshops" rake in multiple millions each year with working casting people making hundreds of thousands to provide this access, every penny paid by actors. They'll refer to "teaching" or "networking" or "demystifying the casting process" or a bevy of other innocuous sounding terms to steer lawmakers and unions away from the intent of workshops. But actors know what they're paying for and casting people know why they're being paid.

    Here's a blurb from a website of one workshop which features working casting directors, associates and assistants, many affiliated with the Casting Society of America.

    "We carefully select the casting directors who are either
    casting or gearing up to cast projects. You can rest assured that each
    of our hand-picked casting directors are among the most sought after in
    town."

    This kind of pitch to actors does not shine a favorable light on the casting profession. It sounds like what one might expect when shopping at the local butcher.

    This is from one of dozens of workshops in Los Angeles. This kind of advertising skirts the law and is expressly forbidden in the CSA workshop guidelines, which were written to help CSA members conform to the recent California state law enacted to protect actors - AB1319. But casting directors continue to flock to workshops like this.

    The work ethic I spoke of in my original post is sadly, quickly disappearing. No, most casting directors do not engage in this practice, and many featured in the film would never be involved with it. But it's not a practice that's happening in a vacuum, and casting directors must recognize that their path to the Oscar is tough enough as it is. I agree with you, Joshua, that workshops by themselves will not prevent
    an Oscar for casting. But with an uphill battle before us already,
    shouldn't the casting profession do all it can to elevate itself in the
    eyes of its peers? I think so.

    There are more than a "few bad apples" patronizing the workshops, and rather than turn a blind eye, casting professionals everywhere - CSA and otherwise - should decry the exchange of cash for access, and should encourage a return to the day when casting directors - like Ms. Dougherty - do the job they're already paid to do. And that's to find the best actors they can, without charging the actor to be found.

    Billy DaMota CSA

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