All Movie Fans Need to Watch HBO’s ‘Casting By’

By  · Published on August 5th, 2013

All Movie Fans Need to Watch HBO’s ‘Casting By’

One of the best anecdotes in the documentary Casting By, which premieres tonight on HBO, relates the start of Warren Beatty’s screen career on a 1957 episode of Kraft Television Theatre. We’re told that like many young actors of the time he modeled himself way too much on Marlon Brando. Then we actually see a clip, and sure enough the future movie star looks and sounds like he’s doing a comical impersonation. Fortunately, within the next five years he would find his own comfortable style and manage to break out in Hollywood in order to become one of his generation’s finest. And apparently we have casting director Marion Dougherty to thank for giving him his first shot.

There are a lot of first- and second-hand stories in the film about a lot of actors and actresses’ beginnings. And a lot of rare clips to prove just how terrible or terrific they really were. There’s Jon Voight’s embarrassing performance on Naked City in 1963, which actually kind of foreshadows most of his later work (personally, I’ve always thought him to be one of the worst in the business). Jeff Bridges talks about how he witnessed audiences literally laughing at his tearful work in 1970’s Hall of Anger. Bette Midler thanks Dougherty for allowing her to hide her Jewishness and play a missionary in Hawaii and earn a paycheck that would finally get her to New York. And then there’s a claim that Michael Eisner, while President and CEO of Paramount Pictures, kept trying to push Suzanne Somers for significant movie roles over Meryl Streep.

Yet Casting By isn’t simply a collection of interviews offering trivial tales for the enjoyment of film fans. Primarily focusing on the pioneering work of Dougherty and to some lesser extent on the influential career of her male, West Coast equivalent, Lynn Stalmaster (pictured right), director Tom Donahue weaves a whole film history out of the perspective of these two casting directors, and it’s an angle most of us aren’t familiar with at all.

The main point of the doc is that casting is a relatively unrecognized and little understood side of the industry and that those employed in this craft (including Dougherty disciples like Juliet Taylor, Amanda Mackey and Wallis Nicita) are an unsung component of moviemaking – one sequence points out that casting is the only opening single card credit that doesn’t have an Oscar category. But it’s also a story about how Hollywood drastically changed in the 1960s due to the collapse of the traditional studio system and the rise of TV, both of which led to Dougherty’s new kind of casting process. And how through that we got a new kind of movie star trained on the stage and tried out on the small screen (in theater-esque live programs), discovered in New York rather than L.A., and partly heralded through open- and indie-minded companies like United Artists.

Just as the new documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom is telling a new story of the music industry by way of spotlighting the unheralded job of backup singers, Casting By is similarly rich in its treatment of the movie and TV industries. Here we find parallel address of sexism, power, image versus talent and to some degree race. Interestingly enough, the last of these topics is mainly related to Dougherty’s idea of casting Danny Glover opposite Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, a film also referenced in Twenty Feet From Stardom for having cast singer Darlene Love as Glover’s wife (likely Dougherty’s idea, too). The initial blowback showed just how unknowingly bigoted Hollywood was with regards to assuming all characters on the page are white unless otherwise noted.

And both films involve a third act describing another change in their respective industries leading to a decline in each profession. For Casting By it’s the mega-corporatization of the studios that brought casting choices into the boardroom, and while the doc doesn’t get too much into today’s movie stars, it’s not hard to consider the difference between then-newcomers Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro and today’s handsomer, model-quality young actors. The point is proven plenty with a brief clip of Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as the female lead in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the cinema equivalent, perhaps, of any sexy-over-skillful, Auto-Tune-enhanced pop singer.

Outside of its necessary and curious historicism of the casting profession and its impact on Hollywood, Casting By is especially appealing for all the big names recruited for the ride. Other screen legends interviewed by Donahue include Al Pacino, Diane Lane, John Travolta, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Robert Duvall, Cybill Shepherd, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and an emotional Burt Young. Also we hear from the great directors who’ve benefited from having great casting directors, including Martin Scorsese, Arthur Hiller, Norman Jewison, Richard Donner, Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen, who admits to needing Juliet Taylor so he never has to actually meet many of the people appearing in his films. If that honesty sounds sort of mean, it’s definitely overshadowed by the doc’s one notable villain, filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who solely and bluntly represents the opinion that casting directors aren’t that important and don’t deserve Academy Awards.

Documentaries on Hollywood and filmmaking are both common and easily sellable these days to a broad audience of movie fans. We’ve seen docs on directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and editors, and eventually we’ll probably have one on best boys. We cinephiles will eat up every last one simply for more unheard tales from the industry on our favorite artists and films. It’s not often that they’re as filled with context and deeper, unifying histories as Casting By is, however, and though the advantage here is likely that it’s so concentrated on a single figure, that alone wouldn’t get results as entertaining and crucially discerning as this. If you’re at all interested in film history or Hollywood anecdotes, it’s more than a must-see. It’s a brisk, breezy, enjoyable and often endearing educational experience.

Casting By debuts on HBO tonight at 9PM ET and will be available to the channel’s subscribers via HBO On Demand and HBO GO.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.