The quiet revolution of Marion Dougherty

Marion Dougherty, a revolutionary figure in the world of castings

Sometimes a revolution can be really silent, even though we’re talking about cinema and not politics. If we think about the history of this industry, dozen of directors and actors come immediately to our minds. Maybe we know a few screenwriters. But probably none of us laymen can mention a casting director. Here, in this field, Marion Dougherty has been a milestone, one of those people who can change the course of events.

American cinema in the 40’s and 50’s was going great, the so called Golden Age of Hollywood. But there was something too static about it. A well-oiled machine, sure, but similar to a cage. Like in ancient Theatre, parts was always the same. The tough man, the adventurer, the femme fatale and little more as background. So actors specialized in certain roles, according to their appearance. James Dean, Clark Gable (before WWII) or Clint Eastwood suited perfectly in their characters, just to make a few examples.

A scene of The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, one of the talents discovered by Marion Dougherty

Marion Dougherty was the one who changed the perspective, like a Copernicus of the celluloid. The acting potential had to do the difference, to dress the part, in spite of the physical aspect. So, in the book The Graduate by Charles Webb the protagonist is tall and blonde? Who cares, let a still unknown Dustin Hoffman play it. The outcome? Great success for the movie and for Hoffman, is not a secret.

In the late 60’s Marion Dougherty opened the first indipendent casting agency, so indie that the studio was actually a house in New York, used not only as a meeting point with the actors, but also by writers searching for inspiration, like a guy named Martin Scorsese. This also was the birth of a new cinematographic pole, in the Big Apple, and the end of Los Angeles (Hollywood) monopoly.

Many other actors got launched by Marion Dougherty or staff, like the right-hand man Lynn Stalmaster: Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges (who failed at his debut), John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Gene Wilder, Cybil Shepherd, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, the famous duo of Lethal Weapon, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Each choise was a victory against all odds.

Another intuition of Marion Dougherty casting agency, the duo Mel Gibson-Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon

Casting is a game of gut instinct”, said Marion Dougherty in an interview in 1991, “you feel their talent and potential in the pit of your stomach”. In the same year many artists like the ones named before and others such as Woody Allen signed a petition destined to the Academy, so that they could give an award to Marion Dougherty for her career. Which she didn’t receive for the rest of her life.

The industry was never much thankful to Marion Dougherty, not only for a prize, which is… just a prize, but for the treatment she received in the last years of work, forgotten too quickly in the early ’90s. Because, like she said (and it seems plausible), you have to make way to younger and more attractive professionists, who carry on the corporate interests. Even if creativity is the one that ends up sacrificed.


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