Anyone who cares about movies should see “Casting By,” a new documentary on HBO about casting directors. It is a rare opportunity to see early glimpses of some of the greatest actors live in their first roles and even never-seen before audition tapes. But more important, it is a chance to understand the influence of casting directors like the pioneering Marion Dougherty, who championed actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and John Travolta and literally changed the face of movies.
In the early studio days, actors were primarily chosen for their looks, including the indefinable “screen presence.” They were under contract, and when it came time to make a movie they would often pick whoever was available from their list of in-house talent. They would train them in-house as well. “They used what people looked like physically to define the character…Can we fix the nose, can we fix the teeth? Last on the list was ‘can they act?’”
The end of the studio era coincided with a change in story-telling on film that opened the door for New York stage-trained actors who looked less like leading men and more like real people, actors who understood a new kind of acting based on “inner being, emotional truth.” The movies were ready for “great actors as opposed to the Hollywood star-making system.” That was where Dougherty came in. She began casting for live television, a trial by fire that was the perfect foundation for getting to know the actors and the business. It is touching to hear the gratitude of the actors she helped. “She can see what other people can’t see,” we learn. “Even before you see it in yourself,” adds Danny Glover.