A loving tribute to veteran casting director Bonnie Timmermann, Simon Wallon’s Bonnie shoots itself in the foot in its opening minutes. As we watch rough VHS tapes documenting the subject’s early interviews with actors like Benicio Del Toro, Natalie Portman and Kate Winslet — all so impossibly young, beautiful and lovable — we already resent the more mundane docu-stuff to come. Why not just gather all these tapes you can get permission for, have Timmermann do a bit of intro and make it a series for streaming? Most movie buffs would watch hours and hours before getting their fill.
Admittedly, that wouldn’t really be a movie. And Wallon succeeds if, in throwing this stuff up front, he means to convey the excitement a casting agent feels when getting to know someone the whole world is about to love. We get it; we want more. And though we do get more of this as the doc goes on, we also get less: Though stuffed with enjoyable anecdotes and glowing testimonials from stars (Giancarlo Esposito, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Linney) who owe her a debt, the movie barely touches the surface in terms of its subject’s own personality, her drives and most of all how she got her start in this field. Though it entertains from start to finish, and explains Timmermann’s role in expanding the range of humanity that Hollywood puts on screen, it leaves us feeling we don’t know the woman herself, not one bit.
The Bottom Line
More enjoyable than enlightening.
We do get this much, in terms of biography: She was born in Manhattan, and her dad had wanted to be a talent scout. That’s nearly it. When, midway through the film, Timmermann offhandedly mentions that Leonard Cohen was one of her first boyfriends, Wallon lets that jaw-dropper pass without so much as a followup question.
Cohen was one of the many crazy additions Timmermann made to the landmark TV series Miami Vice. She gave us Cohen, Willie Nelson, and Miles Davis as colorful denizens of Crockett & Tubbs’ world; but while those performances always grabbed attention, they weren’t the most important thing she did on the show. Timmermann was so determined to make this network crime saga look like a real world — with actors of different races and people who looked like they’d lived a bit, or stumbled into acting while in juvie — that she quit the series early on, convinced that exec producer Michael Mann’s staffers were filtering out all the interesting people she was sending his way. Mann got her back on board, and the show benefitted immeasurably.
Though we’re never told how she came to care more deeply about this than her peers — was it just as simple as growing up in NYC? — we hear from plenty of actors who credit Timmermann for working hard to find roles for people of color. According to interviewees like Laurence Fishburne, she was the kind of person who’d look at a script and ask, “Does this character need to be white? What if he’s Puerto Rican or Black?” In Mann’s Blackhat, for instance, Viola Davis played a part that was written for an Italian-American man. In the other direction, say, should a Native American actor like Wes Studi always be stuck in roles written specifically for Native Americans? Commonplace questions now; not so much when she was starting her career.
Wallon doesn’t give us much in terms of how a casting agent digs her way into a community of nascent talent, but we do learn (unsurprisingly) that it involves going to a whole lot of plays other people ignore. There were four people in the audience, Timmermann says, when she first saw Sean Penn in a play. Next stop, Ridgemont High. One night at the Public Theater, she became fascinated by a thesp who seemed to be playing his whole part with his back to the audience. Here was the future Hannibal Lektor (better known as Lecter) for Mann’s Manhunter: Brian Cox.
Wallon films a friendly chat between Cox and Timmermann, and spends a bit more time watching her befriend relative newcomer Odessa Young. But most of her get-to-know-you process is buried in those tapes we’re not seeing. Surely, there are more moments as electric as the time when Viggo Mortensen politely but firmly opts out of small talk. He came to audition, and that’s what he’d like to do.
“Like” might not be the right word. Actors speak here about the grind of rejection, the hard work of letting a character inhabit you. Their art can feel impenetrable to those who haven’t done it, or done it well; Timmermann’s, you would think, would be slightly easier to demystify. But Wallon focuses on what’s easy to show and lets us guess about the rest.