Women He's Undressed
A fitting tribute to one of Hollywood's unsung Aussie heroes.
July 15, 2015
He won three Oscars and worked on 285 films. He created gowns for everything from 42nd Street to Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon to An American in Paris, and Oklahoma! to Some Like it Hot, and ranks among the most successful costume designers ever to ply his trade in Hollywood. He's also Australian, born Orry George Kelly but better known as just Orry-Kelly. And, as Women He's Undressed rightly assumes, most people have probably never heard of him.
For those who haven't, Gillian Armstrong's latest documentary is here to shed light on a life of glamorous ups and heartbreaking downs during the Golden Age of cinema. For those who have, the movie will surely still fill in plenty of gaps, whether serving up interviews with Orry-Kelly's colleagues and those he inspired, or spilling the beans on his famous friendships and status as a confidant to many a leading lady. Either way, his journey from a small town to the big screen makes for quite the story, as do the exploits that followed. He didn't just dazzle with his prolific designs, but also with his defiance, proudly living as a gay man at a time – and in an industry – that was far from accommodating.
In a factual effort that bears more than a little resemblance to Armstrong's Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst, Women He's Undressed doesn't only rely upon talking heads and archival footage, though what it boasts in these areas proves both engaging and illuminating. Instead, it addresses the issue that troubles many docos — not having enough existing content, but not wanting to fill its frames with wall-to-wall secondhand accounts and clips — through cheeky re-enactments.
In some films, that's a tactic that doesn't work, but not in Armstrong's skilled hands. She tasks actor Darren Gilshenan (Rake) with both playing and recounting Orry-Kelly's life, with his version of the subject — who is rarely glimpsed in his real guise — speaking directly to the camera. The effect feels more conspiratorial than typical narration, like watching someone talk through their memoir and share all the juicy tidbits that were omitted. In fact, such scribblings are mentioned, as intermingled with an account of his special bond with Cary Grant.
More well-known names keep coming up, of course — and with actress Jane Fonda, local designers Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby) and Kym Barrett (The Matrix), and film critic Leonard Maltin among those offering their memories of and thoughts about Orry-Kelly, there's never any doubt that this is a tribute. If ever a film figure warranted such an adoring approach though, it's this under-sung hero and his brilliant career. Oh, and those ladies he helped in and out of his beautifully made costumes? They included Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Shirley MacLaine and Marilyn Monroe, just to name a few.