Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Gillian Armstrong.
Orry-Kelly was born in the NSW town of Kiama in 1897, and made his reputation as a costume designer in Hollywood during its Golden Age. He designed costumes for some 300 films, including enduring classics like Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, etc. He won three Oscars along the way. And in the 20s he roomed with a young actor named Archibald Leach in Greenwich Village. But despite all of this Orry-Kelly is not that well known.
This fascinating, informative and entertaining documentary from Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, etc) attempts to redress this.
The documentary was actually the brainchild of television and film producer Damien Parer, the son of photographer Damian Parer, Australia’s first Oscar winner who won for his film about the Kokoda Trail in the 1940s. Parer was researching other Australian Oscar winners when he came across Orry-Kelly’s name. He was amazed that this gay Australian had designed iconic films like Some Like It Hot, An American In Paris, Gypsy, Irma La Douce, Les Girls, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, 42nd Street, and had designed costumes for the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis, yet nobody knew anything about him.
Parer spent a couple of years researching the man before he approached Armstrong and asked if she would be interested. Armstrong also looked up Orry-Kelly and was similarly shocked that he had been part of some of the most iconic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, virtually from the 1930s to the 1960s, and yet so little was known about him.
The fact that little was known about Orry-Kelly and that there was a lack of archival material about the man presented a huge challenge for Armstrong and her regular writer and collaborator Katherine Thomson. There followed two years of detective work and intensive research. So few of the great stars he worked with are still alive making it hard to find more intimate and personal revelations about the man and his private life. Armstrong was fortunate in that she found people like Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury, who had worked with Orry-Kelly, and that they agreed to be in the documentary and reminisce about their experiences. Veteran costume designer Ann Roth also appears, as do a few personal friends who knew him and who had some fantastic memories.
In some ways, Women He’s Undressed is something of a queer history of Hollywood at a time when the movie industry was very homophobic. He partied with the likes of George Cukor, and enjoyed a quite lavish lifestyle. One of the more fascinating elements of the film are the revelations about Cary Grant who was roommates with Orry-Kelly in Greenwich Village for nine years in the 20s, and Armstrong teases out information about their relationship. We also learn of an unpublished autobiography that was apparently quite candid about those years.
There was a wealth of material and film clips to draw upon. Editor Nicholas Bowman, who has worked with Armstrong on several of Armstrong’s films, spent months cutting the film together in fluid style, working virtually from dawn to dusk to give the film its rhythm. The treasure trove of film clips will resonate strongly with film buffs and those with a romantic view of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The lack of archival footage featuring Orry himself though presented something of a challenge to the filmmakers. Armstrong has used actor Darren Gilshenan to play Orry-Kelly in a series of bridging segments. He gives us a sense of Orry-Kelly’s acerbic wit and irreverent style, and provides background information on the man that puts his journey into context. Deborah Kennedy plays the role of his doting mother Florence, to whom he regularly wrote informing her of his life in Hollywood. But these sequences are a little distracting and occasionally detract from what is otherwise a fascinating, insightful and very informative documentary.