Unsung Heroes Know More!
Ode to the Casting Director
Why Casting Directors should take the credit and be formally recognised by her Hollywood Community, and the Academy Awards. If it weren’t for these insanely talented folk, with hawkish eyes and an acute sensory radar for sifting out the gems, and mining territories from all walks of life, our relatively small, close knit, talented community of storytellers would look incredibly different! What would we do without these powerful but humble-behind-the-scenes team members championing us [the Actor]on, looking for ANY excuse to pounce and seize on talent and make it shine?
The Birth of the Casting Director, how she emerged through one woman’s finesse and savvy, to spot a niche in the market, everyone else was overlooking, meant ultimately, Death of the Old Studio System but the beginning of a Whole New Generation of raw talent, fresh blood and brand new, invigorating storytelling. Allowing the likes of Scorsese, Ashby, Allen, Ford-Coppola, Schlesinger and many more to emerge with their indispensable ‘other halves’ by their side: The Casting Director, who midwifed actors like Redford, Close, de Niro, Pacino, Hawn, Hoffman, Bridges, Duvall, Eastwood, Poitier, Glover, Voigt, Streep, the list is endless. A new breed of actors set to redefine Hollywood and it’s intersection with the real life edges of society hitherto unheard of, let alone seen. This harmonious lineage of casters, a particularly selfless type of species, continues to elicit a new breed of ever evolving actors into the fold with the same, if not more acute talent, flair and finesse. All stemming from the journey of one woman, Marion Dougherty, and soon after Lynn Stalmaster (male).
There is something wonderfully creative, brave and dextrous about the nimble eye of the casting director. A transaction that takes place, like many lucrative business deals behind closed doors. But unlike conventional business deals, these doors are not closed for the reasons we might assume. The doors of the casting director are closed to protect the actor, to create a safe haven and a space, if this is possible in times of acute nervousness, for the actor to quiet his mind, be himself, allow the character to seep out, unfettered and untainted, and to meet the casting director with open arms. An average casting director may just be out to fill up the books, parade a few actors and hand the project over to the director asap. But the Great Casting Director, has a naturally wonderful instinct, thinks outside the box, and can often see what the director cannot because this is what she is paid to do. To collaborate with the director in helping him realise his vision, and in doing so, catching his blind spots, opening up and making room for alternative possibilities other than what might be inferred in the pages of the script. The Great Casting Director, loves the actor and has a keen sense of appreciation for what this artist is capable of doing. In Marion Dougherty’s own words, it is her job to see behind the eyes of the subject to look and reach beyond what is visible into the deep, starry night of his potential that may simply be dormant for now, still hidden from view. She understood that a good actor might not be having their best day, and took pride in pushing for those unknowns she really believed in, whatever the weather. Marion Dougherty was responsible for bringing 100s and 100s of unknown actors to our screens who might have remained just that, unknown, were it not for her pushing to make us see what she had already detected, but as yet still remained a delightful mystery for us to unravel and experience for ourselves. And here’s how she did it:
Marion pioneered thinking outside of the box in the casting industry, certainly outside of the Hollywood studio set, where the label Casting Director had not even been born yet. Then the role of the caster in the Hollywood system was simply that of organiser; secretary; managing lists of actors like a fruit lady in a fruit factory, handing the designated actor over to the director in the right order and turn, regardless as to whether they were a good fit for the part or not. This secretarial position had no aspirations above her station, and certainly no ‘Dougherty Intentions’ to venture further afield, challenging how entire systems, worlds, and planets could be changed and assimilated simply by reordering the talent gene pool of the project in question.
In her first ever role as casting assistant for TV, unlike the conventional plains of Hollywood, Marion headed straight for the unexplored terrains of New York theatres: Broadway, Off and Off Off Broadway, to scour the talent of new breed actors leading a radically different kind of movement from the West Coast studios who were still at the behest of the old school league. Actors were no longer satisfied to play a broad stroke type; ‘the Siren, the Vixen, Hero or Fool’ that Hollywood considered it’s cash cow. Instead, Lee Strasberg and later Utah Hagen were grooming a different kind of actor. One with layers of truth, flaws, who went against type, and built a different kind of chemistry with it’s audience. The next siren no longer needed to look like Rita Hayworth, she could be Glen Close or Karen Black (Myrtle in the Great Gatsby). Real people, with real issues, sometimes insane issues, but you’d still consider taking them home for a little rock ‘n roll.
In order to haul these stacks of raw talent in front of a director, a casting director is putting his or her reputation on the line. For the film industry, billions of dollars are often at stake in a project, and for a casting director to make the right suggestions and pool in the right team to support the director’s vision he (the director) and she (the casting director) must have great rapport, a strong sense of trust and loyalty and a keen eye. A casting director must rely on her gut instincts, she may not always get it right but without daring to take risks, sometimes huge risks, the likes of the Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Great Gatsby, the Colour Purple, The Killing Fields and many, many more film projects may never have given birth to the greatest creations in cinematic history or stood the test of time. This was a groundbreaking era, from the 50s, 60s, rolling into the 70s, let’s not forget that the role of the casting director is still a relatively young concept.
Led by the generosity of a single woman’s spirit, an entire lineage of casting directors followed suit, and they would echo her sentiment, look for that extra special something, that rare gem, dare to go against type or find chemistry in, at times, the most unlikeliest of places and above all follow their gut. This is the true creativity and genius of the casting director, providing bold suggestions for the process without dictating the final outcome. She is the good shepherd, influencing, steering but forever upholding and serving the director’s cut and ultimate vision.
Shockingly, the role of the casting director, is the only category of the entire Industry Body, not to be formerly recognised. Make-up and costume are given recognition for the artistic choices made to aesthetically bring a piece together; the editor, who can make or break some of the finest scenes in storytelling history, has the dutiful role to serve the director’s vision (and is handsomely rewarded for his efforts), the musical score, special effects, props and set design, all garner recognition from their peers. And of course, in all of these cases; it is the director/producer who has the final say in the decision making process. Nobody is wanting to take any of this away from the chiefs in charge so why is the casting director not honoured the same recognition for her efforts?
Some say, it is down to the maverick nature in which the casting director took her seat. She was rebellious, a risk-taker, led by her creative mind & instinct without much thought, initially, to the dollar signs attached to the project. She helped turn Hollywood’s class act stories and culture upside down, and brought us raw meaty personalitites befitting for the roles of more raw meaty type projects, like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. There are perhaps those from the old school guard still alive, and still a little mad by the upset caused, unwilling to look down and recognise a pretty penny of the productions that changed the face of cinematic history through the lense of a caster’s eye.
By the time Marion Dougherty got to casting Midnight Cowboy, she was in the remarkable position of being charged with only having to serve up one actor to audition for each role written in the script, such was the enormous trust that John Schlesinger and the Hollywood machine had now placed in her well honed judgement and reliability. She fought, championed, and totally went out to lunch to ensure that John Voigt and Dustin Hoffman, an unlikely pair, were cast in this new venture. Because John Sleslinger, an English director, knew relatively little about the US talent currently trending in its day, it was down to Marion (even more so than normal) to cast the entire film project, more or less single handedly. Midnight Cowboy, went on to be nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Actor for Voigt and Hoffman. It picked up two awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Marion Dougherty’s efforts went by uncredited.
One thing is true, when you hear the incredible stories of these legendary ladies, both in the US and the UK, the sensivity, and big heartedness of this small population is palpable. Casting directors know they have to take the rough with the smooth, after a hefty loss they must pick themselves up and dust themselves down, but they are still sensitive critters at heart, just like the rest of us. Perhaps it is this that gives them the skill to see straight through the huge, whirlpooling heart of the actor: the knowledge that we are made of the same substance: Dreamers, Storytellers, Collaborators and Co-creators.
Something happened in the eighties when the corporates took over and started running the show; they were after the big bucks, and showed they cared less for good cinematography. Nevertheless, the Dougherty and Stalmaster lineage stayed strong both in the States and the UK. With a perpetual need for Art to push-back and question the status quo, on both large and small screens the Hollywood machine continues to feed our world with ever expanding stories and cultures, faces of multifarious hues and gender types, that regardless of any superficial difference, have the ability to reach out and touch our hearts through an unbroken, universal chord. I thank Jennifer Euston for casting Orange Is The New Black; Carmen Cuba and Kate Ringsell among many, many for Sense8; the wonderfully, sensitive, open-minded, big hearted, and sadly late Doreen Jones for breaking new boundaries when it was still unfashionable to do so with gender switching roles and inter-racial relationships in shows like Prime Suspect and most recently The Honourable Woman. For Kahleen Crawford she receives credit for I, Daniel Blake, her latest casting genius; and Ulrike Muller for Nobel; Judy Henderson, the Hubbards for Homeland; Nina Gold , Lucinda Syson; Elaine Grainger; Shakrya Dowling, Bonnie Gillespie, and many, many more for pushing the boundaries and forcing the industry to grow by bringing new icons to our screens, challenging and morphing our perceptions.
Screenwriter Buck Henry said: “A casting director with one really good idea can fundamentally readjust an audience’s understanding of what the story is; of what the impact is on the culture. — That’s what they do. And if we’re lucky we get the benefits of those moments of inspiration”. [Buck Henry, writer: The Graduate, To Die For]
And as Scorese succinctly puts it: “The time is coming for this [omission of honouring the casting director] to be reexamined and rethought.”
“It’s wonderful recognition, and they deserve it.” Oliver Stone.
An all hail, to casting directors everywhere and their tireless, often unthanked and uncredited efforts to push through new frontiers, for standing at the leading edge of explosive new film, theatre and TV; and quietly, humbly, birthing amazing new talent. At the hub of it all, yet up until now, in the hush of it all: The silent partner behind the curtains. Proving once and for all that Unsung Heroes, know more. With honarary ceremonies recognising the role of the casting director, taking place for the first time in the US and the UK this year, perhaps this is the beginning of a new era of: Unsung Heroes no more!
~Words often associated with the role of the casting director: Pioneering, Wise, in Pursuit of Excellence, Sensitive to Understand, Joyous Risk takers, Generous, Big hearted.