Friday, March 29, 2013

2013 Atlanta Film Festival review: CASTING BY

Tom Donahue's expertly constructed documentary about the casting process for movies and TV is suitably deemed Casting By, and it is an absolute corker, especially for confirmed movie geeks. It's set to air later this summer on HBO, but it's making the festival rounds now.  The film acts as a tremendously wide-scoped eye-opener, since the casting process is rarely discussed anywhere, at all, in even the smallest detail. In many ways, casting is an art form that's essential to the success of any given project (and, as this film makes clear, is certainly responsible for the great films of film's last golden age from 1967-82). But this aspect of filmmaking nevertheless remains cloaked in an fog of undeserved mystery. Donahue's ridiculously entertaining and invaluable documentary heroically aims to both decipher and lift that cloak.

The director has wisely chosen the legendary casting director Marion Dougherty as his thru-line for this immense subject matter. Dougherty (who passed away in 2011) was a casting pioneer.  Just a partial look at her resume is overwhelming. She started off in 50s-era TV, selecting performers like the little-known James Dean for live television productions (where she met her lifelong collaborator, director George Roy Hill). Then she moved on to groundbreaking, location-rich TV series like Naked City and Route 66. While casting for those shows, this NYC-based maven found herself in the epicenter of a seismic acting movement that would eventually produce such stars as Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Redford (all of whom, in Casting By, gush almost tearfully over Dougherty's ability to get to the heart of what makes any particular actor special and just so right for a role). She broke into movies via George Roy Hill, cutting her teeth on his teen obsession comedy The World of Henry Orient.  She would go on to work with Hill on Hawaii (Midler's debut film appearance, as we learn in this doc), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (she convinced Redford to get excited about playing Sundance rather than Butch), Slaughterhouse-Five, A Little Romance (she basically discovered the wonderful Diane Lane), and The World According to Garp (this sequence produces memorable visits with Garp co-stars Glenn Close and John Lithgow, both of whose efforts were Oscar-nominated).

But Dougherty's achievements don't end there, as Casting By reminds us. This is the woman who fought hard for Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo and Jon Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (Voight's interviews regarding his disappointing performance on Naked City, and how that outing possibly hobbled his hopes for winning the Midnight Cowboy role, are positively revelatory; also, this segment highlights the disappointing fact that Dougherty was not given just credit by Midnight Cowboy producer Jerome Hellman, who remains obviously regretful to this day). Even a partial recounting of her subsequent work--with which the IMDB cannot possibly keep up with--reads like a dizzying tour through the great films of the 70s, 80s and 90s: Panic in Needle Park (Al Pacino's first lead role), Across 110th Street, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, The Paper Chase, Lenny, The Day of the Locust, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Escape from Alcatraz, The Killing Fields, Clean and Sober, Dogfight, Full Metal Jacket, Tim Burton's Batman entries, and Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon series (during which she convinced Donner to cast Danny Glover as Mel Gibson's counterpart, even though the Murtaugh character, as Donner protested, wasn't written as a black man; Donner later sheepishly admits to being small-minded here). Plus, she's the one really responsible for casting the most gilded of all TV achievements, Norman Lear's All in the Family (a triumph which, alone, should have netted her worldwide adoration). 

Instead of that, though, Dougherty--like most casting directors still do--toiled joyfully in anonymity.   Her requisite love of actors was so infectious that it inspired a host of future casting directors, most of whom were women (a particular highlight of the film is the characterization of Dougherty's East Side NYC office as being a boisterous, work-based hub of frenetic acting and casting creativity). In this fashion, Casting By also profiles other Dougherty-inspired stars of the craft, including Juliet Taylor (Woody Allen's longtime casting go-to) and invaluable Scorsese collaborator Ellen Lewis.  Donahue finds time, in this dense 90-minute doc (which, seriously, could have easily emerged as a multi-hour mini-series) to talk to, among others, John Papsidera, Douglas Wright, and Lynn Stalmaster (one of the few pioneering male casting directors, who tellingly got the first stand-alone casting title card with his work on Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair),

But still, most of the successful casting directors, as we learn through Casting By, are women, and Donahue's documentary does a superb job of explaining why this is so. The film also uncovers yet another of the industry's nasty layers of sexism in that it illustrates exactly why there is not yet a widely-called-for Casting category in the yearly Academy Awards (there was a vociferous movement to get Dougherty a Special Oscar, but we find--partially through an infuriatingly blunt interview with director Taylor Hackford--that the insecure Directors branch is standing in the way of this artform's recognition, mainly because they want the world to see casting solely as the director's job; this is something that Casting By is resolutely out to change). Expertly edited by Jill Schweitzer--who, given the astounding roster of interviewees, must have had to pick through a mountain of golden footage here--Casting By rivets even the most tentatively dedicated movie-lover with its ardent,  iron-clad grasp on this unsung craft's rich history and immutable value.

Below is the documentary's trailer, which is a tasty joy unto itself: 


Lisa said...

If Dougherty cut her teeth on "Foute 66" then she was exposed to the best of the best. That show has incredible guests stars -- back when TV shows HAD guest stars, which most don't now -- and they make the episodes (which are already great) even more fascinating to watch. I might try to catch this at the Sarasota FF or wait until HBO, but it does sound amazingly great!!

Lisa said...

Of course I meant "Route 66"!

Dean Treadway said...

Lisa, if ever there was a film for you (as a pioneer in your own right), it is this one. I think you will be over the moon with it!

John Johnson said...

Great article Dean, I can't wait to see this. I have been keenly interested in this area, praticularly anecdotes of casting that directors or studios wanted that would have mucked-up our classic films; you know the stories I mean? There must be a good book on this subject? keep up the good writing.

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