As we prepare for the end-of-year movie season — filled with big films with big stars — the Ridgefield Playhouse brings us a special documentary about how movies are cast. This presentation of the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society will feature a conversation with the director, Tom Donahue, at the Playhouse on Friday evening, Nov. 15.

At first glance, a documentary about the movie business may sound routine. After all, how many visits do we need to Hollywood to see what happens behind the silver screen? How often have we, over the years, watched documentaries about those who make movies? Leave it to master documentarian Tom Donahue — in the wonderfully entertaining Casting By — to find a fresh story, frame it with famous faces, and focus on a less familiar dimension of the film world.

When we go to the movies, we travel to new worlds filled with people. While we may think that actors simply arrive on the set, behind-the-scenes professionals make those casting decisions. Of the people doing this work, most consider the late Marion Dougherty the queen of the profession who, according to many, created this line of work. With roots in theater and early television, Dougherty brought a shrewd eye for talent and a keen insight for material to some of the most famous casting decisions in Hollywood history.

Consider, for a moment, how Dustin Hoffman shined in The Graduate, how perfect Robert Redford and Paul Newman were as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or how beautifully cast we consider every Woody Allen film. With great care, Dougherty brought fresh thinking to every project she pursued, a tradition that endeared her to such legendary directors as Martin Scorcese and Clint Eastwood and others.

With the care of an archivist, and the creativity of a master filmmaker, Donahue brings a marvelous sense of “wow” to how he tells this story. He makes the most of his access to a vast collection of movie greats — from Redford to Midler to Eastwood — without letting the personalities overwhelm the narrative. Because he gives sufficient airtime to tell each story, we get to know the magic this woman created. How touching it is to hear Midler, for example, remember her experiences as an extra in the film Hawaii and the encouragement she received from Dougherty to pursue her dreams. And how much fun we have when Donahue reminds us of the bold casting moves when Dustin Hoffman starred in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, and when Redford became the Sundance Kid when most considered him the ideal Butch Cassidy. The film satisfies and teases us with each morsel of movie candy.

Of course, any documentary this satisfying must leave a lot of footage behind and, as Donahue explained at the New York Film Festival, he had to help some Hollywood luminaries understand why their stories would not make the final cut. By focusing on stories we can’t wait to hear, and giving us the chance to hear from people who seldom appear in documentaries, Donahue opens a door to a fascinating dimension of the movie business. He enhances how we appreciate the subtleties in every casting decision through the eyes of such legends as Bridges, Travolta and Hoffman, as well as Dougherty herself in an interview before her death. The director beautifully uses their commentaries to personalize the casting director’s achievements as well as to ask a reasonable question, “why does the Academy refuse to honor these professionals with Oscars?” Hopefully, the film will reopen this discussion.

 

Film Nutritional Value

Casting By

* Content: High. The inventive work of casting director Marion Doughtery comes to life in this memoir of her bold casting decisions for a range of famous films.

* Entertainment: High. Director Tom Donahue invites a fascinating collection of Hollywood names to share their memories of how Doughtery and her work changed their lives and their films.

* Message: High. For any film buff, Casting By offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at this dimension of the movie business.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to enjoy a movie moment is relevant!

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your children — especially those who enjoy movies — with find Doughtery and her contributions most interesting.

 

(Casting By runs 89 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets