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Casting By

She discovered James Dean and told Warren Beatty to lose his faux-Brando mumble, but how many people know Marion Dougherty or her unsung Hollywood profession?

The fact that casting is the only main-title film credit not recognized with an Oscar category is a sore point raised with eloquence in Tom Donahue's highly entertaining documentary Casting By. Primarily a tribute to trailblazing New York casting director Marion Dougherty, but by extension to the entire, largely unsung profession, this is an illuminating close-up on a vital cog in the moviemaking machine.

Donahue and ace editor Jill Schweitzer make the case that casting directors should be considered partners in the creative process by hauling in such heavyweights as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford and Robert De Niro for support. While Norman Jewison and others point out that in the old days, casting was a more organizational function that involved shuffling studio contract players into roles according to type and salary scale, it was Dougherty who raised the stock of the job.

The doyenne of a breed that includes such casting vets as Juliet Taylor, Ellen Lewis and West Coast counterpart Lynn Stalmaster, Dougherty pioneered a shift to choices based not on looks or cookie-cutter personae but on the ability to create a character.

Honing her skills on Kraft Television Theatre and later on Naked City and Route 66, Dougherty trawled off-Broadway and acting schools, finding talents like James Dean, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Maureen Stapleton, Christopher Walken and Gene Hackman. She cut her teeth working with TV directors who would go on to major film careers, among them George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Hiller. The assembly of footage and stills from these years shows the array of fresh talent Dougherty tapped.

Though she died in 2011, Donahue's interview with Dougherty forms the spine of the film. She attributes her success to "gut instinct," never letting a bad audition or disastrous first day of shooting (as in Dean's case) blind her to whatever potential she had intuited. A hilarious clip of a barely intelligible 22-year-old Warren Beatty on a Kraft drama backs up Dougherty's advice to his agent that he should lose the Brando mumble.

Via her work with Hill, Dougherty took her New York approach to Hollywood. The high points of that association were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, but anecdotes cover everything from The Last Picture Show to The World According to Garp.

Stalmaster's work also is lauded. There are great stories about casting The Graduate (Buck Henry recalls Redford testing opposite Candice Bergen: "It was more blonde than any human should be asked to accept") and finding the Appalachian banjo-playing kid for Deliverance. It's thrilling to gain insight into how these iconic movies came together. Jeff Bridges and John Travolta are among those offering wry recollections of their early experiences in Stalmaster's casting pool.

A high point of Dougherty's studio years -- as head of casting at Paramount and then Warner -- was her invention of a modern-day Abbott and Costello in Mel Gibson and Danny Glover for the Lethal Weapon franchise. Glover, whose role was not written for a black actor, calls Dougherty "someone who sees something in you before you even see it in yourself."

While the Emmys have Outstanding Casting categories, the Oscars remain resistant. More surprisingly, a 1991 campaign to get Dougherty a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, led by a stellar roster of producers, actors and directors, also was nixed. Donahue's tribute is perhaps a bid for posthumous reconsideration.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Mavericks; HBO Documentary Films) No rating, 89 minutes