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Quick: Name the only job listed in the opening titles of a movie that doesn’t have its own Oscar category.
It’s the casting director.
This is only one of many slights that the new documentary Casting By is looking to right. Why has the profession largely gone ignored? Director Tom Donahue tells The Hollywood Reporter, “Other than the fact that it’s a female-driven profession, it’s also one of the youngest Hollywood professions. It’s really only been active creatively since the 1960s.”
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Prior to that, in the old studio system, when actors were under contract, casting directors “were a glorified human resource position,” Donahue explains. “If you needed a doctor, they had a bunch actors who could play doctors and generally people stayed in a box.”
This changed radically as the old studio system crumbled and television came on the scene. To capture the evolution of the casting director, Donahue’s film tells the story of Marion Dougherty, who was a window dresser at Bergdoff Goodman when her friend asked for her help him find 10 to 20 actors a week for a live television show. Donahue explains how this opening was the start of her career:
“The casting director was in over his head and had no idea where to find these actors, so after a couple months he quit and Marion took over. She discovered that she had this facility to find actors. She went to regional theater and off-Broadway plays to find actors like James Dean, Gene Hackman and Jon Voight and put them in front of the television camera.“
Soon she started working on narrative TV shows like Route 66 and Naked City, while her discoveries headed to Hollywood to act in movies, most notably Dustin Hoffman, who landed The Graduate. According to Donahue, this was when everything changed forever. “The idea of these less attractive, less stereotypical actors starts to take over and change the face of movies, with New Hollywood embracing this new way of casting.”
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Donahue explains that Dougherty not only changed who got cast, she changed how they were cast: “She invented the concept of the shortlist. Where you don’t just give the director a bunch of stereotypes, you give five actors who represent five very different ways of looking at the role, leaving the director to really think about it and make creative choices. She really turned this bureaucratic profession into a creative one.”
Casting By is chock-full of testimonials from these New Hollywood icons — Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Al Pacino and Robert Redford to name just a few — discussing Dougherty’s influence, but the game-changing casting director’s real enduring legacy are her proteges.
When she set up the first independent casting shop in New York in 1965, her first hire was Juliet Taylor, who went on to cast all of Allen’s movies (make sure to check out Allen’s open letter in THR discussing Taylor’s influence on his movies). Taylor is the first of many casting directors who are part of “The Marion Tree,” which consists of many of the women (Ellen Lewis, Amanda Mackey and Jen Euston) who dominate the field today.
In 1991, Dougherty had been nominated to receive an honorary Oscar for her career achievement, a nomination that was campaigned for by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro and Glen Close (all of whom read their letters of support in the documentary). Yet despite her achievements, the Academy ignored her supporters’ efforts.
In covering Dougherty’s lack of recognition, Donahue’s film shifts to focus on the politics between the Academy and the profession. While the film was being shot, casting directors didn’t even have their own branch in the Academy and, ironically, they had no say in who won the best actor and actress awards. But that changed in August — not coincidentally just days before Casting By premiered on HBO — when the Academy announced the creation of a casting director branch.
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Donahue is proud that his film is shaming many in the old guard into recognizing the contributions of casting directors, and he predicts that with the creation of the new Academy branch it will only be three years until casting directors have their own Oscar category as well. “Your jaw drops because you see these contributions from Marion and others and you don’t understand why it has taken this long for them to be recognized.”
The Casting By team clearly has Oscars on the mind of late. After getting excellent reviews and having a good run on HBO, the documentary is being released theatrically on Friday in New York and Los Angeles in an effort to qualify for an Oscar nomination. The documentary category has never shied away from politics, but it should be interesting to see if the Academy is interested in nominating a film that shines a light on its own.
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