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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Casting is the last unsung profession in Hollywood. Well, maybe not the last unsung profession, but as Casting By points out, it’s the only main-title credit without a corresponding Oscar. Casting By tries to shine a light on that hidden profession.

The movie opens with the death of the studio system in Hollywood. That’s when casting was no longer a matter of simply choosing contract players who were already on the payroll. This is when the grand dame of casting, Marion Dougherty, got her start. The movie then follows her independent career, and the careers of those who followed.

Unsung profession remains a mystery
Unsung profession remains a mystery

As a film critic, I wanted Casting By to teach me what “good casting” means. Like editing or sound design, casting is something I only notice when it’s a special effect (like Bill Murray in Zombieland), or when it completely fails (pick any romance with no chemistry). I expected the movie to explain what the job of casting entails. I expected interviews with actors, directors, and casting agents. I hoped the documentary might show us screen tests showing different actors reading for the same part to illustrate what a good casting director adds to a production. I wanted to finish the movie smarter than when I started.

Casting By offers some of what I was expecting. There are plenty of interviews. Notable experts are Dougherty, Lynn Stalmaster, and many other casting directors. There are actors who owe their careers to Dougherty, notably Jon Voight and John Travolta. There are directors like Clint Eastwood who are grateful for the work their casting directors put in.

Taylor Hackford, director of The Devil’s Advocate, is cast as the devil’s advocate in Casting By. He explains that a “casting director” doesn’t direct anything, and therefore “casting director” is a misnomer. “Casting by” is the correct alternative, he says. Hackford is the only person who speaks on camera against casting as being worthy of special recognition. That’s useful in the segment of the film that advocates for an Oscar for casting, and an honorary Oscar for Marion Dougherty’s work in this area.

But Casting By failed to meet my expectations in some very important ways. For one, I don’t feel any smarter about evaluating “casting” in a film than I did before seeing the documentary. For another, I don’t have a very good idea of what the job entails. Casting directors mention going to plays and hanging out with actors. But the best anyone was able to explain what the job entails is “it’s instinct.” If a documentary can’t do better in explaining such a valuable, Oscar-worthy skill, then we all might have watched something else.

That’s not to say you won’t enjoy Casting By. Celebrity interviews and behind-the-scenes deals are eternally interesting to readers of Premiere and EW. Just don’t expect to be any smarter for having seen this doc.