“He was incredibly famous in the 1930s and 1940s. Whenever he came back to Australia it was ‘our Orry from Hollywood…’ Once that Golden Age faded, so did his fame.”
Women He’s Undressed (2015) is Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong’s spirited, smart, fun, cleverly constructed feature length documentary about a colorful, courageous costume designer, Orry George Kelly, known professionally as Orry-Kelly. It is also a celebration of a life and art. The film successfully rescues the three-time Academy Award winner from the edge of obscurity.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, he was the costume designer for an astonishing 282 films. He designed clothing for Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell, Errol Flynn, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, and for character actors and chorus boys and girls. His films included Some Like It Hot (1952), Casablanca (1942), An American In Paris (1952), Auntie Mame (1958) and Now, Voyager (1942). Orry-Kelly (Jack to his friends) was Head of Warner Brothers Costume Department during the richest period of American filmmaking. His work reflected the story being told, but it also had effect on the prevailing fashion of the era.
Orry-Kelly was an outrageous, witty, outspoken, hard drinking and uncompromising gay man, who survived in Hollywood because of the protection afforded by his friendship with studio chief Jack Warner and his wife, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. He was able to be safely out of the closet because of his extraordinary talent and the associates that protected him.
He was born in Australia 120 years ago. As a kid, he was hooked on theatre, costume, performance and art. He was trained as an artist, something obvious in his designs. He traveled to the USA when he was 25-years-old. He was talented enough and cute enough to get work as a chorus boy on Broadway, where he attracted attention with his sewing skills backstage. He was hired to do costumes for several productions, yet he soon focused on a career in Hollywood, starting out as a scene painter at Warner Bros.
Using ingenuously chosen clips, Armstrong demonstrates the range of Orry-Kelly’s work: the increasingly absurd outfits that Bette Davis wears in Mr. Skeffington (1944), her smart suits in Old Acquaintance (1943) and the scandalous “red dress” she wears in Jezebel (1938), a black and white film. He designed Ingrid Bergman’s luminous, perfectly tailored costumes for Casablanca. His three Oscars were for An American In Paris, Cole Porters’s Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot.
There isn’t a lot of film footage of Orry-Kelly, so Armstrong, with writer Katherine Thompson, uses remarkable stories, clips, still photographs, and actors who play Kerry, his mother and others from his life, to stage scenes from his life story. He is played by the excellent Darren Gilshenan. There are sweet, wryly comic scenes of his childhood, along with talking heads from showbiz talking about the studios during his era and the kinds of films they made. Others, including movie critics and film historians, offer an appreciation of Kelly and his work. Some knew Orry-Kelly: Academy Award and Tony Award winning costume designer Ann Roth first worked with him on Oklahoma! (1955), and she brings a cool, crisp outlook to the film. Oscar winner Catherine Martin, also an Aussie, tells of his influence on her designs. Jane Fonda was in three films that he costumed, and she is forthright in her disregard for the films, but open and warm in sharing her feelings about him. Angela Lansbury speaks glowingly of working with him.
They tell absorbing stories about the wildly talented, wildly difficult perfectionist, as well as heartbreaking ones about his personal life as a gay man in homophobic Hollywood at a time when being open could mean the end of a career. Orry-Kelly was a man who made no attempts to hide his gayness. An important thread that runs through the documentary is his relationship with a certain an actor who lived with Orry-Kelly for several years at the beginning of both their careers. At first, he is not named, then gradually it emerges that it was Archie Leach. Leach, of course, became Cary Grant. The homophobia of the era and the threats to both careers just starting, bring a terribly painful and ultimately cruel break-up of many years from Orry-Kelly’s early lover and best friend.
Orry-Kerry’s voice enthusiastically narrates his own story in wonderfully surreal, theatrical, playfully symbolic settings; rowing alone in a tiny boat is a frequent metaphor. These sequences bring both lightness and depth to the film, and a far more personal connection to the subject than most documentaries. In the end, it’s both a fun and tremendously sad look at the sexual and human politics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the costs to gay men, and to women both straight and gay.
Armstrong only offers a few images Orry-Kelly himself, and the photographs of him at work at the studio are not shown until nearly the end, including archival footage of him at the Academy Awards. The photographs bring a kind of intimacy and authenticity, and it’s understandable why she places them at the end, separate from the more stylized, recreated sections of the film. Plus, there is one more, witty, teasing moment during the credits, a sly promise that there is even more to Orry-Kelly’s story.
Highly recommended. Streaming on Netflix.