Let’s Hear It for Marion Dougherty and Casting Genius

Marion Dougherty
Marion Dougherty

“More than 90 percent of directing is the right casting.” That’s Martin Scorsese speaking at the very beginning of Casting By, the 2012 Tom Donahue documentary I caught up with a week or so ago on PBS.

Needless to say, the Oscar-winning director (for The Departed, and check the casting on that one or for any Scorsese flick) isn’t the first one to make the observation. It’s been said for decades, and every time I hear it, I get to thinking.

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One thought that almost instantly crosses my mind is how close I come to regarding actors and how they’re cast more highly than I regard the vehicles-stage, screen, television or Netflix-they’re in. This time of year when the season’s productions are heralded on a daily basis, I glom on to every casting notice that comes my way. Already I’m thinking that Denzel Washington will be strong as Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, even though he’s a couple decades too old, just as Tom Hanks was strong in Lucky Guy, although at least 15 years too advanced for the part. I also understand this is the kind of marquee casting in theater that doesn’t occur as often on film or television, since those media are considered too difficult to overcome where age is concerned: the unforgiving close-up, you know.

Watching Donahue’s film, several other observations struck me. The documentary is a tribute to the late Marion Dougherty (1923-2011), rightly lauded for transforming casting in Hollywood after making a name for herself in Manhattan. She earned her reputation by plucking unknown New York actors (start with Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino) for significant movie roles when the Tinseltown studios were folding and with them their casting offices stocked with contract players.

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I knew about Dougherty (without ever meeting her) from the early days when she had her office in a renovated brownstone on East 30st Street, and I lived on East 31st Street. I regularly ran into actors I knew on their way to or from her offices. I also knew manager Bill Treusch, whose name shows up in the doc because he had his digs in Dougherty’s building and worked with, oh, Diane Keaton, Carol Kane and their quirky like.

So I was intrigued now to hear what someone-by whom Scorsese swears adamantly-had to offer. And not least her perhaps obvious remark that, as a good casting director, “you have to love actors and be interested in them.” By “interested,” she turns out to mean something a bit more complex. She used the word “instinct” repeatedly, and on the index cards she kept (which are shown frequently in close-up), she notes her intuitive responses to, let’s say, Jon Voight for whom she vigorously championed-and landed-Midnight Cowboy or Glenn Close and John Lithgow, both of whom she finagled into The World According to Garp and subsequent Oscar nominations.

Curiously enough in Casting By, there’s an aspect of Dougherty’s presence and the several casting directors she hired (Juliet Taylor, possibly foremost among them) that goes without comment. With the notable exception of Hollywood veteran Lynn Stalmaster, they’re almost all women. So I wondered whether casting is, indeed, primarily a woman’s occupation. Certainly there are male casting directors: Bernard Telsey, Daniel Swee, Jim Carnahan and Billy Hopkins leap to mind. Yet, “woman’s intuition” is a commonly heard phrase, whereas “man’s intuition” isn’t.

Discussing Dougherty and her contribution (she eventually ran the Paramount and Warner Brothers casting offices, her New York actors bias predominating), Donahue spends much screen time looking at screen credits and whether casting directors deserve it. The ultimately successful battle was long and hard. Dougherty and Stalmaster finally achieved it in longer lists, and Dougherty at last received single-frame credit with The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968.

But what about an Oscar category? It’s been mooted for ages. Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood, for three, think it’s high time; Taylor Hackford thinks not-for reasons about which his organization, Directors Guild of America, comes off as a trifle paranoid. Seems to me, though, that it’s only right, certainly if Scorsese and so many others believe in that 90-percent contribution to direction. And yes, I know about the Artios Awards established by the Casting Society of America (C. S. A.) in 1985, but they’re presented at luncheons and not in full view of the public. Also, an Oscar is an Oscar.

Incidentally, Marion Dougherty was put up for a special Oscar that surely should have come through but never did. At this point the category should be established in her honor.

And what about a Tony category for casting directors? Same thing goes, wouldn’t you say? There’s talk every season on Broadway, off Broadway and off-off Broadway about outstanding ensemble playing. The Drama Desk recognizes it officially, but can anyone deny notable ensembles must have something to do with notable casting-and the someone(s) doing it. Yes, yes, it’s accomplished along with a director, but more often than not, it’s accomplished along with a director openly relying on a savvy casting person.

Dougherty does make a statement during the Donahue interview that needs clearing up. Talking about her m. o.-watching actors on stage, chatting them up in her offices-she contrasts it with the sort of Hollywood casting approach she replaced. She and others, talking about her influence, talk about the studio moguls looking for stars, not actors. For productions, they’d merely thumb down the list of types they had under contract and select, as someone puts it, “one from column A and one from column B.”

This prompts Dougherty to declare, “Hollywood knows nothing about casting.” Huh! She suggests that in casting films before the late 1950s, everyone was starring in the movies, but few or none were acting. There’s no need to say that wasn’t the case. There’s much need to say that casting (pun intended) aspersions does a disservice to the studio staffers who had their own instincts about actors. Are we to believe that Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Olivia de Havilland, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and you name the dozens of other leading and character actors were simply playing themselves. I don’t think so.

Anyway, all hail Marion Dougherty and what she’s wrought straight through today by way of disciples. We all benefit daily.