("Casting By", the acclaimed documentary by director Tom Donahue, has been released on DVD by First Run Features. Below is our original review from November 2013 of the film's theatrical release.)
By Lee Pfeiffer
"Casting By" is an extraordinary new documentary by filmmaker Tom Donahue who spent years accumulating interviews and archival materials for this look at the contributions of casting directors to the motion picture business. Most people are well aware of the important roles that composers, costume designers, editors and production designers play in the creation of movies-- but if you say "casting directors", the average person's eyes glaze over. Sounds boring, doesn't it? Donahue's film sets the record straight, pointing out that casting directors are often responsible for bringing to life some of the film industry's most memorable characters. So important is their contributions that Donohue found enthusiasm among esteemed filmmakers and actors to participate in his documentary even among those individuals who are not prone to generally giving interviews. In the film Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, John Travolta, David V. Picker, Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Norman Jewison, Norman Lear, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Duvall and Robert Redford, to name just a few, all extol the virtues of casting directors. Woody Allen readily admits that he hates the process of casting because he can't bring himself to choose one actor over another...and that his instincts are often wrong. He credits his long-time casting director, Juliet Taylor, with force-feeding certain actors like Meryl Streep into Allen's films when he didn't see the wisdom of casting them. The film's genesis was as a tribute to Marion Dougherty, a woman whose name won't ring bells with most movie fans, but who was a legend in the industry. It was Dougherty who elevated the status of casting directors when she first went into the profession in 1949. Her keen eye and insightful instincts quickly made her the "go to" person for top directors and studio executives. Dougherty soon became indispensable and set up an office in New York City where she often nurtured talent such as "up and comers" Christopher Walken and Al Pacino. Soon, she had a virtual monopoly on high profile casting assignments for films. She acted as mentor for young women who would go on to become successful casting directors and inspired another legendary person in the profession, Lynn Stalmaster. It was Dougherty who fought to get Jon Voight the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy after it had been decided that the role should go to Michael Sarrazin. She gave many other future superstars their first major break when she was casting director for the hit TV show The Naked City in the early 1960s. These actors have never forgotten what they owed her. Dougherty is seen throughout the documentary through interviews Tom Donahue conducted with her in 2007. She passed away in 2011, not having seen the completed film- but her sassy nature and independent outlook on the role of women in the film industry come through loud and clear despite her advanced age.
The film is peppered with relevant film clips throughout and countless other prominent talking heads. The movie has set off a bit of a firestorm in the film industry because of its outright advocacy for the position that casting directors should receive recognition from the Academy at Oscar time. (It is the only single-card credit in the film industry to not have an Oscar category.) Clearly, the filmmakers seen here support such a move but there are some exceptions. Oscar winning director Taylor Hackford, who is President of the Directors Guild of America, vehemently argues against Academy recognition for casting directors because they are not really "directing" anything and that the final casting decisions always rest with the director themselves. Others argue that this in an invalid justification for his position because, in the end, every aspect of a movie needs the director's approval...so why give Oscars for editing, cinematography, costumes, etc? The film points out that casting directors are recognized by the Emmys so there is precedence for this idea. Yet, as far back as 1991, esteemed actors and directors pleaded with the Academy to at least grant a special Oscar to Marion Dougherty, but their efforts failed. As for Ms. Dougherty, she was elevated to VP levels at major studios only to be fired for the crime of having aged in a business in which seniority is frowned up. Other veteran casting directors lament the present state of the industry, saying that too many roles are awarded to flash-in-the-pan celebrities who are ill-suited to play the parts. There are exceptions, of course, and most of them can be found in acclaimed TV series where casting directors are proving to make all the difference when it comes to finding the right actor for the right role.
Casting By is a very unique look at the aspects of the film industry that are not widely discussed and it blows the lid off the dirty little battles that have been going on in terms of trying suppress a key branch of the business from receiving appropriate recognition. No matter where you stand on the subject, you'll be fascinated by this look at film history. The movie is superbly edited by Tom Donahue's wife Jill Schweitzer, who had the unenviable task of culling through 250 interviews with prominent people (only about 50 ended up in the final cut.) The movie is justifiably being touted for a nomination for Best Documentary. It deserves the honor- but one hopes that the criticisms of the very Academy that would make that decision won't render yet another shameless snub, this time because director Donahue has dared to go after some sacred cows.