4 Best Movies to Watch by Bette Midler

Staff & contributors

Watch this documentary and find yourself amazed at how much of Hollywood history was determined by one woman: legendary casting director Marion Dougherty. At a time when studios were casting actors based on “type,” Dougherty revolutionized the process with her preternatural ability to see the potential in budding actors like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, and Glenn Close. Her work in introducing NYC’s theater actors to the silver screen launched countless careers and indelibly shaped iconic films like Midnight Cowboy and Lethal Weapon.

And yet, Dougherty’s work — and that of those who followed in her steps — is criminally underappreciated, as this doc both lays bare and seeks to redress. A largely female profession, casting was long devalued by a casually misogynistic industry, the persistent legacy of which is subtly highlighted in some interviews here. Among the talking heads sharing appreciation and anecdotes are many of the actors and casting directors whose careers Dougherty launched, as well as filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese) testifying to the pivotal role casting has played in their work. Playing the villain is Ray director Taylor Hackford, who believes casting directors add little to the filmmaking process — an argument that the doc wryly disproves with the sheer weight of refuting evidence it offers up.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Al Pacino, Amanda Mackey, Bette Midler, Buck Henry, Burt Young, Clint Eastwood, Cybill Shepherd, Danny Glover, David Rubin, Deborah Aquila, Diane Lane, Dustin Hoffman, Ed Asner, Ed Lauter, Ellen Chenoweth, Ellen Lewis, Glenn Close, Jeff Bridges, John Lithgow, John Papsidera, John Sayles, John Travolta, Jon Voight, Juliet Taylor, Lora Kennedy, Lynn Stalmaster, Marion Dougherty, Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson, Mike Fenton, Nancy Klopper, Ned Beatty, Norman Lear, Oliver Stone, Paul Mazursky, Paul Rudd, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Donner, Richard Dreyfuss, Risa Bramon Garcia, Rita Hayworth, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Ronna Kress, Ronny Cox, Taylor Hackford, Tony Bill, Woody Allen

Director: Tom Donahue

Saying that the program I Love Lucy paved the way for television would be an understatement. Lucille Ball inspired a generation of female comedians, Desi Arnez blazed a trail for Latinos making it in America, and the show that they starred in broke records upon records, redefining what sitcoms could be at a time when no one took them seriously. 

Millions tuned into their love story as Lucy and Rick, but their real-life relationship as Lucy and Desi was just as compelling. It was complicated by jealousy, race, gender, and class, but it was also solidly grounded in true, enduring love. This documentary, directed by Amy Poehler, does well to tell us the couple’s truth without sensationalizing it. Instead of blowing things out of gossipy proportions, she zeroes in on the messy facts and weaves them into a nuanced, enlightening tale about marriage, celebrity, and fame. Thanks to Poehler, the story about Lucy and Desi is just as riveting as their legendary show. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Charo, Desi Arnaz, Desi Arnaz Jr., Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Lucie Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Norman Lear, Preston Foster, Vivian Vance

Director: Amy Poehler

Rating: PG

For the background singers featured in 20 Feet from Stardom, music is a vocation. It is not merely an occupation or a pastime; it is a way of life, a “higher calling,” as the legendary Lisa Fischer would say. For 90 minutes, director Morgan Neville superbly maps out the development of back-up singing in the US throughout the decades, exploring its deep connection with African-American culture and women’s history. It’s fun to finally put names and faces on the oohs and aahs we hear on records aplenty, but the film always finds its grounding on the singers’ own unique voices, where its true soul lies.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, Music

Actor: Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, Chris Botti, Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer, Lou Adler, Lynn Mabry, Merry Clayton, Mick Jagger, Patti Austin, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Tata Vega

Director: Morgan Neville