The ridiculous amount of sheer star power on hand in Tom Donahue’s Casting By is testament to the revered nature of its principal subject, the late, legendary casting director Marion Dougherty.
While never recognized with even an honorary Oscar, despite a concerted campaign from the likes of Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro, Dougherty might well be one of the most influential figures in American movies. From her beginnings as an especially savvy talent spotter for the classic hard-boiled cop show Naked City to her days as the go-to casting agent for the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and John Schlesinger, Dougherty brought a knack for matching actors with projects that verged on visionary. Casting By makes the case that, in a career that spanned the early discovery of everyone from James Dean to De Niro, Dougherty was as influential a force in movies as anybody. When people such as Woody Allen and Scorsese are deferring to Dougherty as the primary agent in some of their boldest casting choices, we’re talking about a serious competitor to traditional presumptions of directorial authority.
That she was from New York is one of the facts Donahue’s documentary cites as crucial. A constant habitué of theatre, she was in a position to spot emerging talent in the Method heyday, bringing the likes of Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall and Jon Voight to their first roles. Indeed, when one considers the extent to which such unglamorous stars became the norm during the sixties and seventies, Dougherty may well have been as instrumental in the tenor of those cinematic times as any of the directors she worked for. Although Casting By successfully makes the case for Dougherty’s uncanny knack for spotting vital and unconventional talent before anyone else, it’s strangely coy about owning up to itself. Beginning as what seems to be a chronological history of the Hollywood casting process, it hits the brakes when Dougherty arrives and, save for a few side trips, becomes her movie. Indeed, while we hear of how she inspired the careers of just about every female casting agent who entered her orbit, little is said of how the process is practised today, save for the fact that it’s more superficial. Which may be true, but is also superficial.
Replete with passionately affectionate testimonials from the likes of De Niro, Eastwood and Voight – who recounts how she battled to get him cast in Midnight Cowboy despite a disastrous previous experience as one of her clients on Naked City – Casting By is also something of an elegy for a lost era, when talent, even at its rawest, stood far above prettiness as the primary reason for getting the part. Indeed, by the time the movie arrives at the point where Dougherty is sidelined by Warner Bros., as its studio casting chief, there is a sense that far more was lost than just a legendary instinct. If movies now seem shallower than ever, it might be because the likes of Marion Dougherty are no longer filling the pool.