“Who hasn’t heard of him?!?!” the first interviewee Ann Rort asks, incredulously, at the suggestion that costume designer Orry-Kelly is some forgotten figure of Hollywood’s past. Such an idea is clearly unthinkable to anyone who was around the industry, such were Orry-Kelly’s vital presence and contributions to both the social and artistic fabric1 of Hollywood in its heyday. A film that should appeal to anyone bar the estate of the late Archibald Leach, Gillian Armstrong’s documentary Women He’s Undressed is a rip-roaring journey through the memoir and career of the Australian designer who would win three Academy Awards, creating some of the most famous dresses and clothing for some of the industry’s most legendary stars. Openly gay and a mainstay among Tinseltown’s social scene for decades, the film manages to tell the story of an overlooked creative force and, in the process, shine a light more broadly on the fascinating cultural history of the industry as well as on the craft itself. If this doesn’t end up as one of the very best documentaries of the Festival then we will have been very fortunate over these twelve days indeed.
Born in the New South Wales town of Kiama, a young creative type Orry George Kelly moved to the city of Sydney and, after some controversy stemming from his associations with some notorious types from the city’s social scene, set sail for New York City. He found himself among the city’s creative and theatrical crowds, making money selling ties and working on stage and behind the scenes of theatre productions, though of most interest is his friendship with a fellow expatriate, the Englishman Archibald Leach (more widely known as Cary Grant), which the the film in no ambiguous terms posits was one of a romantic nature. Both went West during Hollywood’s great post-Depression Boom period, Grant of course finding success as a leading man in the mould of Clark Gable, particularly in screwball comedies, while Orry-Kelly quickly found a knack for costume design with Warner Brothers, under the guidance of notorious studio head Jack Warner. Routinely working on sixty films a year, Orry-Kelly developed a strong reputation in his field, not least because of the rapports he built with the talents he dressed such as Bette Davis, making him one of the most in-demand professionals in Hollywood.
The documentary is distinguished early on by its approach to its subject, with the film’s narrative propulsion mainly given by Orry-Kelly himself (played by Darren Gilshenan) in a Sunset Boulevard type gimmick, taking us through key stages of his life in increasingly surreal and symbolic scenes (his move to Hollywood represented by Gilshenan diving into the ocean, etc.) as well as other characters (his mother). These scenes didn’t completely connect with me and very occasionally broke momentum and pacing, but ultimately narration seems like an inspired choice to get around the problem as to how to invoke Orry-Kelly’s memoir to occasionally shed light on the events from his perspective without intrusive voiceover work. But the film is at its best when Armstrong’s intelligence and vision brings together different strands and interviewees to create a very multifaceted narrative, and that its entire ambitious gamut of content works together seamlessly over a trim ninety minutes shows an astonishing grasp of documentary editing and storytelling more broadly.
The overarching triumph of the documentary is the balance it casts between the individual story and the contextualisation of that within the story of Hollywood itself, a balance that anyone who (like this reviewer) is a sucker for Old Hollywood gossip and such notorious chronicles of the industry as Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon or David Niven’s Bring On The Empty Horses will celebrate. Orry-Kelly’s sexuality is not as front-and-centre as the film’s marketing may suggest, and this is to its credit, though it intelligently discusses it in light of Hollywood’s complicated approach to the subject, its liberal interior compared with its PR-obsessed exterior. Similarly, Orry-Kelly’s achievements are likewise explored, with key clips from his films and interviews with designers such as with Catherine Martin, Baz Luhrmann’s wife and collaborator, who explains a side of filmmaking not always discussed, the clothes and the narrative and psychological insight into characters in films that they impart. Orry-Kelly of course made some of the most important garments in film history, including some central to their films’ success, like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ clothes in Some Like it Hot (to say nothing of Marilyn Monroe’s scandalous wardrobe in the same film), or Bette Davis’ infamous ‘red dress’ from Jezebel.
This isn’t a film that makes sweeping statements or broad speculations, but a meticulously researched and intuitively edited film that makes a case for Orry-Kelly as one of Australia’s most important Hollywood exports and a pioneer in his field, while balancing a compelling portrait of his personal life and relationships with a fascinating anecdotal history of the industry and social milieu of Hollywood in that same period. It’s also one of the best documentaries of the year, a tribute from one of Australia’s great film artists to another.