Marion Dougherty moved to New York City in 1944 and worked at Bergdorf Goodman as a window designer, a job that was profiled in "Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf's," a documentary released earlier this year. Dougherty eventually moved on and landed a job at NBC working as a casting assistant on Kraft television shows, and after a career spanning more than five decades -- and one that's responsible for discovering Hollywood's greatest talent and casting the industry's most iconic films -- Dougherty is now the subject of her own documentary debuting on HBO Monday night.
"Casting By" explores the unsung hero of Hollywood: the casting director. And while the documentary attempts to profile the heavy-hitting casting directors throughout the latter half of the 21st century, it may be most successful in showcasing the fascinating trajectory of Dougherty, who gave actors including James Dean, Glenn Close, Al Pacino, Bette Midler, Warren Beatty, Jon Voight, Diane Lane and more their first onscreen roles.
Working out of a small brownstone on East 30th Street, Dougherty transformed the standard casting protocols of Hollywood's big studio system. (Her offices were fondly dubbed "The Brothel" due to the amount of female casting assistants who worked at Marion Dougherty Associates.) Previously, each studio had multiple actors under contract, allowing film executives to run through the usual list of names and make casting decisions without much ceremony. Dougherty bucked the trend, thriving on instinct: She scribbled gut reactions on index cards and took chances on unknown actors. She searched for nuance, not type. She was responsible for casting duos from Dustin Hoffman and Voight in "Midnight Cowboy," to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon."
Dougherty was also responsible for grooming the next generation of casting directors. Juliet Taylor, who has cast every Woody Allen film since "Love and Death" in 1975 and whose work on "Blue Jasmine" is getting immense praise, got her start working as Dougherty's assistant.
The documentary's most interesting conflict arises over the lack of credit Dougherty in particular, and casting directors in general, has received. Even though Lynn Stalmaster, another protagonist of the film, nabbed a single card credit for his work on "The Graduate," Dougherty was unable to achieve the same recognition for her work on "Midnight Cowboy" a few years later. "Midnight Cowboy" went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture at the 42nd Academy Awards in 1970. A bid to give Dougherty an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar went unfulfilled in 1991, and there is still no "Outstanding Casting" category at the Academy Awards.