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Countdown to the Oscars: No Oscar love for casting directors

The film academy honors actors, sound editors and others, so why not casting directors? Some say they want more recognition; the academy and others say it would be a tough call.

February 21, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Casting director Pam Dixon is president of the Casting Society of America.
Casting director Pam Dixon is president of the Casting Society of America. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Some of Hollywood's most fabled directors, Elia Kazan and Robert Altman among them, have said that casting accounts for roughly 90% of a movie's ultimate success or failure.

Yet at Sunday's Academy Awards, there'll be trophies for categories from best director to makeup — but none for casting directors. While the Television Academy gives Emmy Awards for casting, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards honors casting directors in movies, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not.

Casting directors: An article about casting directors in the Feb. 21 Calendar section referred to Brenda Song playing the flaky girlfriend of lead character Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network." She played the girlfriend of the character Eduardo Saverin. —

That frustrates a number of casting directors, including several who worked on this year's best picture nominees. They think it's time for Hollywood to do more to recognize a profession they say is little understood by the moviegoing public and often taken for granted in the film business.

Creating an award would be "a great idea," said Nina Gold, casting director for "The King's Speech." "Honestly, it's an incredibly thankless job — or anonymous."

Three times in the last 15 years, casting directors have proposed to the academy's awards rules committee that a trophy be added, but they've been rejected each time.

Bruce Davis, the academy's executive director, said the problem is that frequently, "there's no easy way to tell who did the casting in a movie." Producers and directors have considerable influence over casting, he said, and big-studio film projects often develop around a star who commits to the movie long before a casting director is hired.

"It's not that we don't respect casting directors, it's that we don't know how to" create an Oscar category, he said. Besides, Davis added, "We're not looking for a lot of new categories. People think the award show is long enough."

Many casting directors believe that the absence of Oscar recognition reflects a broader lack of understanding about what they bring to filmmaking. "People don't know about it. They just go to the movie and the average person has no clue," said Pam Dixon, an academy member and president of the Casting Society of America, a group of 425 casting directors in film, TV and theater in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere.

Dixon recalled that years ago, when she told her mother she'd been hired as head of casting for ABC, her mom said: "Really? You're going to do something with fishing?"

"I don't think we do [the job] for the pat on the back," said Debra Zane, whose credits include "American Beauty" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." "But when you are at a premiere, or a cast and crew screening …and they mention every single department head and ask them to stand except the casting director, you kind of go 'Agh!'"

To casual filmgoers, the job title may conjure visions of a harried clipboard toter presiding over "cattle call" auditions or lurking at Schwab's Pharmacy in search of the next Lana Turner. The reality is far different, said Dixon, whose credits include "Gosford Park," "The Mask of Zorro" and the upcoming "Green Lantern."

A major part of the regimen still consists of sifting through resumes, scanning actors' demo reels, scouting new talent, juggling shooting schedules and negotiating with actors' agents. But top casting directors also function as script analysts and de facto editors, who spend weeks during pre-production talking with the film's director, parsing the screenplay and mentally assigning roles.

This year's group of best picture nominees provides a window into the subtle challenges of casting a film, such as auditioning 300 actresses to fill the demanding lead part of a heroic adolescent trying to unravel a deadly mystery ("Winter's Bone") or assembling a group of actresses with the talent, Boston accents, pugnacious 'tude and familial resemblance needed to portray seven real-life brawling Irish American siblings ("The Fighter").

Sheila Jaffe, casting director of "The Fighter," had to sort through scores of actresses and draw on her mental Rolodex to find the right women. "We had pictures of the real sisters and we would lay them out, and it was real challenging," she said. "I had to dig deep in my memory bank. It wasn't like looking in IMDB" — the Internet Movie Data Base.

Casting directors say that if they do their job well, the actors fit together so organically that audiences may not realize someone had to assemble them. And because the casting director's work is complete before shooting starts, "by the time they're making the film, everybody's kind of forgotten about you," Gold said.

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