“More than 90 percent of directing a picture,” says Martin Scorsese, “is the right casting.”
So begins the documentary Casting By, airing tonight on HBO, which celebrates the career of trailblazing casting director Marion Dougherty.
That is, if you’ll concede the term “director,” and many in the industry don’t. In fact, “casting director” is the only job on a film that gets a main title credit but has no category in the Academy Awards. But more about that later.
The documentary follows the trajectories of two pioneering casting directors, Dougherty and Lynn Stalmaster (notable for casting Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate), but it’s Dougherty who gets the spotlight. She’s credited with bringing a “New York look” to Hollywood films; that is, before she got into the business, movies were cast by type with actors on studio contracts. By the peak of her career, she was recommending actors with “real” looks, often cast against type, who brought something unique to the role. By this method, she helped launch countless actors to stardom, from Warren Beatty to Glenn Close.
Dougherty got her start casting for a TV program called Kraft, which aired live tapings of plays performed on soundstages. To recruit young, inexpensive actors, she would attend off-Broadway plays and take notes on the talent. A 22-year-old Beatty was one of her finds. James Dean was another.
After eight years and over 500 pictures at Kraft, Dougherty moved on to Naked City and Route 66, casting young actors like Gene Hackman and Cicely Tyson. From there it was on to the big screen. For a feature called Hawaii, a young Jewish girl begged to be cast as an extra playing a missionary. “If you wear a bonnet and it sort of hides your face and you don’t look too Jewish,” Dougherty told her, “I think we can do it.” With the money she earned from that gig, that young woman was able to move to New York. Her name: Bette Midler.
From there, Dougherty’s career was on the up and up. She discovered Al Pacino acting in the East Village. She put Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton in All in the Family. Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy, Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid. She cast Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy before The Graduate made him famous—but who to put in the role of Joe Buck?
Years earlier, she had cast a young man in an episode of Naked City, and he stunk so bad he almost wrote her a letter of apology asking her to “keep believing in young people.” But when he heard she was casting Midnight Cowboy, he flew from Los Angeles to New York to try to get an audition. It worked out, and Jon Voight’s star finally rose.
Perhaps her most notable call was for Lethal Weapon, for which she suggested Danny Glover. The director’s knee-jerk reaction was say the character of Murtaugh wasn’t black. But he could be, Dougherty pointed out. Glover played the role to perfection, and reprised it for three sequels.
Dougherty’s actors are only one half of her legacy—the other are her protégées. She started her own firm, Marion Dougherty Associates, and hired promising young women to mentor. For this, her brownstone earned the nickname “The Brothel.” “It’s a nurturing element,” said one of her mentees, Wally Nicita. “We’re there in a way to serve—often a man. I’m kidding around a little bit, but we’re really there to help somebody else’s vision.”
Once Dougherty stopped proving so useful (first as V.P. of casting at Paramount, then in the same role at Warner Brothers), she got the boot. The documentary implies that this ingratitude for her work had to do with a shift back toward typecasting in the ’90s. Nevertheless, her loyal fan base did not abandon her. In 1991, there was a push by Hollywood notables to get Dougherty a special Oscar for her lifetime achievement. The Academy got “a lot of wonderful letters from a lot of wonderful people,” she said, but it did not come to fruition. Dougherty died in 2011.
The documentary is a warm homage to the woman who kick-started so many notable careers and buttressed so many directors (Woody Allen sings her praises, and has been assisted by one of her apprentices, Juliet Taylor, for decades). She never got her gold-plated statuettes, but she did get her name in lights—not to mention the adoration of countless American icons. That’s a lot of love for a career based, as she explained it, on “gut reaction.”