I’m a movie and tv buff from way back, so I was intrigued by the new documentary recently added to our collection, “Casting By.” It is a history of casting for film and television going back more than fifty years, focusing on the amazing career of Marion Dougherty in particular. There is some coverage of other casting directors, particularly Lynn Stalmaster. If you’ve watched much television from the 60’s through the 80’s, you’ve seen his name numerous times. He also did the casting on lots of movies in the 60’s and 70’s. Juliet Taylor, who has been casting Woody Allen’s films since the mid-70’s, was a protégé of Dougherty and appears in the film as well.

Most people have very little idea of what casting directors actually do. In the early days when the movie studios had hundreds of actors under contract and the “star system” was in place, it was generally a matter of seeing which wholesome ingénue or dastardly villain-type on the roster was available to slot into a production. Things changed when television began big-time in New York in the 50’s. There were no actors under contract to most of the television studios in New York, so they needed a new way to find actors. Marion Dougherty was one of the pioneers in the art of casting, interviewing actors and going to plays (on and off and off-off Broadway) in search of talent. She gave many an actor, including James Dean, Christopher Walken, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, and Jeff Bridges among many others their first jobs in television as well as first movie roles for Glenn Close and Danny Glover among many. Of course, the television or film director always has the last say on casting, but often leaves the casting director in charge of lesser roles entirely, so a great many actors owe their starts almost entirely to Dougherty and a lot of them appear in the documentary relating anecdotes about their early casting experiences with, primarily, Dougherty.

Dougherty was renowned for her tenacity in casting. If she thought someone was really right (or wrong) for a part, she could be a real bulldog. When “Midnight Cowboy” was being cast, she sent Jon Voight in, but he was rejected. The director and several others has Michael Sarrazin in mind for the role, but Dougherty kept lobbying for Voight. Fortunately for movie fans, she got her way.

When Richard Donner was casting “Lethal Weapon”, Dougherty suggested Danny Glover. The result was a big break for Glover and a life-changing moment for Donner. Donner replied to Dougherty when she suggested Glover, “But he’s black.” Since the script did not specify a race, he had assumed “white.” The realization of his own inherent racial assumptions had a profound effect on Donner, and possibly helped other directors become more amenable to “color-blind” casting.

Sadly, not everyone is forward-thinking or willing to share the credit along with the work. Taylor Hackford appears in the film and does himself no favors. Casting directors still get less respect than many others in the business, and Hackford is a leader among the disparagers. He is apparently among the movers-and-shakers who prevent film credits from reading “Casting Director” (hence “casting by”) because he feels the film’s director is the be-all and end-all of the film. “There’s only one director.” I would think most filmgoer’s are smart enough to figure out the difference between the movie’s Director and people like “Director of Photography” or “Casting Director.” Apparently, Mr. Hackford does not.

It is also sad to note that, among the major contributors to a film, there is no Academy Award for casting. A few of the people (like Hackford) in the film would point out that the Director has final call on casting. However, as others point out, the Director also has last say on costumes, sets, cinematography, and everything else but the people in charge of those things (and lots of others) get Oscars.

A fascinating look at the other side of the camera, with the quibble that the DVD does not have closed-captioning, which is almost universal these days. By the way, we have over 500 other documentaries for your viewing pleasure, so feel free to come check some out.