One of the most disingenuous things about the way we talk about cinema is the idea of the auteur. Directors have so much input on so many aspects of each production that it’s tempting (or at least convenient) to discuss a film’s merits based on the work of a single person, when it really takes hundreds of contributors to complete a picture. Films are one of the most collaborative forms of art our there, requiring the blood, sweat, and tears of a wide range of people to achieve success. There are many roles in film production that don’t get their proper due, but according to the documentary Casting By the most egregiously overlooked position of all is that of the casting director.
Casting By follows the history of the casting director credit in the film industry by focusing on the career of Marion Dougherty, a legend within the field. Among countless other household names, Dougherty can be credited for at least partially helping to launch the careers of Warren Beatty, James Dean, Robert Duvall, John Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Peter Falk, James Caan, John Travolta, Gene Wilder, Glenn Close, and the list rolls on infinitely. Due to the endless list of celebrities who owe at the very least a kind word or two about Dougherty for helping get their foot in the door, Casting By is packed to the gills with great little Hollywood anecdotes about an industry that’s known for refusing to change its ways (including an especially raw one from Richard Donner that had me on the verge of tears) & a woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. Dougherty not only has an immense talent for spotting potential stars in the raw, but she also stubbornly refuses to accept the roles women & people of color are relegated to in Hollywood’s margins. Casting By is not a particularly flashy documentary in any formal way, but it is one that serves the noble purpose of preserving an often overlooked legacy on film.
One of Casting By‘s strongest stances is a call for an Academy Award category to honor the work of the casting director & it makes a pretty strong case. There’s even a quote from Marty Scorsese, who has worked closely with Marion Dougherty many times in the past, early in the film that claims that casting is more than 90% of making a movie. It’s hard to argue with that point, especially when the film delves into the early days of studio contracts when on-retainer actors would play parts whether they were right for them or not, just because they were there. Dougherty came up through the time of New Hollywood, helping to define what it was exactly that a casting director does. She would help steer directors & studios into finding the right actor for the job, instead of the more traditional typecasting of actors based on physical appearance alone.
It’s a shame that there still isn’t a casting director Oscar to this day & Dougherty hasn’t at the very least been awarded an honorary Acadamy Award herself. Although Marion Dougherty has struggled for decades to earn the respect that casting directors deserve & to break up the boys club of film production in general, she has received few accolades for her work. It’s only right that Casting By serves as a document of her legacy, laying out in plain, simple words just how important she has been to the shape & climate of American film & just how vital the role of casting director that she pioneered is to the motion picture landscape.