You can tell this is a fun movie when the 18-year-old and the 12-year-old both enjoyed it, even though they had little concept of the movies being discussed.
Casting By is a documentary about casting directors, who cannot be called such because there’s only one director on a film, according to the Director’s Guild. Well, I think there’re four allowed actually: the director, the director of photography, the art director and…I forget the other one. Maybe there are only three. (Director of editing?)
Point is, adding another director is right out. Taylor Hackford plays the douchebag antagonist, and plays it quite well. (Who knew he was still alive? And married to Helen Mirren!) And he makes the point that the director has final say, and therefore is the director so to hell with the person who brings the actors in.
To which the movie rebuts that’s also true of the camerawork, editing, etc., so why not the casting, too?
Casting By, perhaps inadvertently, answers its own question, though: It begins by describing the old days of the studio system, where pictures were cast by directors looking at the list of available actors, picking out a leading man and leading lady, etc. Actors were cast as particular types, and you filled the roles as called for by the script (though clearly character actors often had a lot of leeway).
Then it points out that this is the way movies are increasingly being made again and, boy, is that true. I could describe a film currently in production to my kids, without telling them who’s been cast, and they could come up with the actors who actually were cast.
Is this bad? Well, the Golden Age of Hollywood is, after all, called the Golden Age of Hollywood as a reason, and they don’t seem to have had any trouble making great movies, nor do they seem to have many more miscasts than during what might be called the golden age of the casting director.
In other words, like 20 Feet From Stardom, and many documentaries, it’s basically a lamentation over what was basically a short time span—a time span that was something of a fluke, perhaps, in the scheme of things.
And it may not be coincidental that the time period covered is very similar, with the golden age of the casting director being the late ‘50s to the ’80s.
All that aside, this movie focuses on Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stallman, primarily the former, following her career as she moved from TV into feature films, starting her own casting agency and ultimately coming to run casting at Warner Bros in the ’80s and ’90s.
So we get a lovely little film, clocking in at under 90 minutes, including interviews with nearly 60 people, vignette after vignette of great moments in Hollywood’s dingiest period or just good human stories. (As one of the interviewees said, Marion treated actors like real human beings.)
The best stories are the ones where iconic actors nearly didn’t make it, like Jon Voight, whose disastrous first performance on “Naked City” (and it is awful) caused him to write an apologetic letter to Dougherty that he never sent, asking for forgiveness for even daring to act. Of course, later, he ended up prepared to beg for another shot and she picked him for Midnight Cowboy.
Jeff Bridges recounts the terrible story of bringing his famous father and brother to see him in his first big performance in the awesomely titled Halls of Anger, only to see his big scene reduced to a quick shot of him looking ridiculously overwrought. Before he could pack it in, though, Dougherty sent him for The Last Picture Show, and the rest is history.
There are some great Stallman stories, as well, with John Travolta testing out superbly for The Last Detail, only to be replaced by Randy Quaid, living the role. But then, of course, Stallman recommended him for the role that ultimately became Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter”.
Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate (written in the book as a blonde Aryan type, as was most of the cast); Al Pacino for Panic In Needle Park; Glenn Close and John Lithgow for World According To Garp; Mel Gibson and Danny Glover for Lethal Weapon, and on and on.
You can’t imagine these movies cast with other people, and Dougherty says she did casting by selecting three (or fewer) actors for a particular role, only sending multiple actors for the same role when they would do the roles in dramatically different ways.
Clearly she was crucial to the process, with a bunch of writers, directors and producers marching through saying “Oh, yeah, I couldn’t have done it without her.” Woody Allen in particular discussed how bad he was at casting and how Marion (and then when she moved to WB, Marion’s protege) was critical to his films being made.
And remember, most filmmakers (including these!) are ego maniacs who don’t eagerly share credit; you’d really expect a lot more to be in the Taylor Hackford camp. So it’s touching to see the biggest names of the ’60s and ’70s come forward and say, “We were gonna cast Linda Hunt for Rumble Fish but we went with Diane Lane, thanks to Marion!” (OK, that’s not a real thing, though Diane Lane got the Rumble Fish role through Dougherty.)
Of course, it still didn’t make me wanna see any of these films. Heh. (Not my era, dammit.) And, as I said, the kids don’t even know most of the movies and stars, but they enjoyed it, too.
That’s a pretty good recc for a doc.