A hit at Sydney Film Festival and now in its theatrical release, Women He’s Undressed is an exploration into the life of the little known Orry-Kelly, the Australian-born costume designer who would win three Academy Awards over his career, working with some of the biggest stars in history such as Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis. A very successful, enjoyable documentary – our review is here – we sit down with its director, acclaimed Australian director Gillian Armstrong.
Let’s start with the central figure of the film, Orry-Kelly – not particularly known by casual film buffs and yet is this giant in his field. How familiar were you with his work, and what gave you the inspiration that there might be an extraordinary story here?
Well we didn’t know – I took on the project not knowing if it would be an hour documentary or a feature, we didn’t know if there was a story, just a lot of rumours. To go back to how I got involved, it was really my producer Damien Parer’s baby, his idea to make a film about Orry. Damien’s father was the very first Australian to win an Academy Award for his Kokoda film in 1945, and Damien grew up without his father – who was killed in Korea – and later became a television and film producer. He’s always had an interest in Australians who’ve won Academy Awards and happened to be looking at a list and saw this name, Orry-Kelly, next to three Academy Awards for costume design, and at that point he had more Academy Awards than any other Australian. And Damien, a big film buff, hadn’t heard of him, tracked him down and looked him up – what films he’d won the Award for – and then there were these iconic films Some Like It Hot, An American in Paris, and then he saw all the others and was just gobsmacked, that here was this Australian who’d designed all these Busby Berkeley films, most of Bette Davis’ films, Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, Mame, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, this incredible breadth of amazing cinema that really many of these films have become iconic films of all time, and are still being viewed across the world. To think that these costumes were designed by an Australian that no one had ever heard of was what attracted his attention, and when he brought the project to me about three years ago I had exactly the same reaction.
Yeah to see all those great films connected by that same thread, pardon the pun, is amazing. And interestingly you had Catherine Martin who ended up beating his record with four Oscars.
Catherine and Baz [Luhrmann] were the only two people when I started talking about the project who’d actually heard of him, and were very proud to say just after Strictly Ballroom they were invited to edit an issue of Australian Vogue and did a story on Orry, but they were really among the very few people here who’d heard of them. But they’d heard of him in America, but not everyone knew that he was Australian, that was the other interesting thing. Everyone in America we spoke to would say he was one of the top three costume designers of all time, but they didn’t know he was born in Kiama in NSW, not may people know where that is.
Well the name Orry-Kelly doesn’t exactly exude Australiana.
No, people didn’t quite know about his first name. When we started the research, on Wikipedia and so on, there was so much misinformation. Katherine Thomson and I were saying to each other the other night, we’ve spent three years finding the facts of the true story of Orry, right down to the small facts – he was Orry George Kelly, and Orry was the name of his father, from the Isle of Man.
Right. One of the things I think the film excels at is the grounding it gives the audience in the art of costume design itself, its importance in developing character psychology and so on. Am I right that you studied and worked in theatrical costume design before film?
Oh… let’s just say it was very lightweight – I went to Swinburne Arts School and it was the very first film course in Australia, and I wanted to do something behind the scenes in maybe theatre, and I did think that perhaps I could do set or costume design, which is why I enrolled, as that was one of the subjects. I did a few designs and things in the first year, and realised I actually was a little bereft of ideas, it’s actually a very hard thing to do, and then I moved on to my passion of photography, and then everything finally came together in film for me. But I’ve always had an interest in costume and design, which was the beginning of my training. Which means that I understand what they do and their contributions, and as a director I understand that and have been so lucky to work with some of the leading costume designers in the world on my own films. I understand how important it is, and I’m very tough on my own costume designers because they do help create characters, they do help tell the story, and that was one of the things I felt about doing this film, that people don’t realise the importance and how brilliant and clever they are. So yes, I wanted to do a film about this man who is not known in his own country despite his extraordinary talent and place in cinema history, but I also wanted this film to be about what goes on behind the scenes, the art of costume design, the magic, in praise of all the great designers.
The immediate connection for me was Unfolding Florence, your film about wallpaper designer Florence Broadhurst – like Orry-Kelly, she was this larger-than-life figure in her creative field, and you also use a similar dramatic device, where both subjects talk through their own words.
Well we don’t do it exactly the same – the big decision we made was having someone talking to camera. With Florence Broadhust, which I also did with the brilliant Katherine Thomson, we had her voice narrating, but you only saw her from the back. We had the wonderful Judi Farr, and the back-on stuff was the last walk and part of the story was her murder. But yes, I agree, they’re both larger-than-life characters, and both absolutely brilliant artists. It is the reason why the producer came to me – “she’s the girl who did the story about the person involved in design” – and I had to say when they approached me about Florence my first reaction was “What? About a wallpaper designer?” but there were two things – when I saw her designs I was absolutely gobsmacked, works of art, and secondly her life and the amazingly rich person that she was, a con artist in many ways and that was part of the trigger. I loved her sort of naughtiness, and in the same way there was that element with Orry. Although we didn’t know in the beginning, as we said, there was nothing in-depth about Orry, and people don’t generally interview costume designers about their personal life or philosophy, so it took quite some time to find out more than the interviews he’d given.
When he came back to Australia by the way in the 1930s and 40s, he was incredibly famous even then, headlines of “OUR ORRY-KELLY IN HOLLYWOOD” and so on, asking how it was working with Bette Davis, going to Hearst Castle and so on, but most were lightweight questions about whether short skirts would be in next spring, is navy a good colour if you have sallow complexion, etc. It was a huge detective job and a lot of that was determined by Katherine Thomson. Who was this man, and is there a story more than “well, he went to Hollywood and finally made it”?
Right, and with this in mind, how important then, when the film came together, was the idea of him speaking in his own words, so to speak? I think Darren Gilshenan does a terrific job.
He does, even though I do know that you don’t actually like our treatment of the story and we knew that the visual motif that we finally came up with was risky and may divide people, but I’ll explain why we did it. So there we are doing this story about a man who died in 1964, a behind-the-scenes person, so there are very few stills of him, hardly any moving footage at all, and yet we read various things and his interviews and letters which we found in archives like Cole Porter’s and Hedda Hopper’s and so on, and he had this great, dry wit. So the challenge is how do we dramatise this story and get into this mans’ head? You can have a narrator who describes him and says “Orry-Kelly has a dry wit”, but really for me I wanted you to hear those words. When you try to put together a feature-length story as this is, we had to decide how to do we make it entertaining and get the audience emotionally involved with an understanding of Orry. We don’t want to have a whole lot of talking heads telling you, but have the audience hear the sort of things he said and understand the emotional ups and downs, and as you said, the psychology of the character.
I personally find the sort of documentaries that do the period re-enactments really uptight, where you have a voiceover of some narrator telling the audience what to think at the same time as you see it on screen. I’ve actually fought against that since the beginning with my very first film, Smokes and Lollies. I think audiences are smart, I want to take you on a journey and want you to start working things out for yourselves. I also think that the style has to come from the content. Finding out who he was and what we were saying before we went ahead with how we were going to do it, and that’s when we started throwing out millions of ideas. Should we have an actress playing Bette Davis saying “my friend Orry”? And we finally felt we had a lot of material with a lot of funny, dry lines about himself and his life, and we thought of the Broadhurst way where we see the back of him, or over stills, but finally seeing that image of little Orry as a child in the Kiama historical society in a sailor suit next to a boat that says Kiama on it, that’s really the beginning of our inspirations. There was something in that perfect image for this person who travelled across the ocean and worked in costume, like his costume his father, a tailor, likely made for him. Something about that boy and the boat and we finally came up with our idea of the man in the boat. 301 ways to use a red boat.
And that’s balanced out because there were many others willing to speak to his talent…
Yes, we combed the world to find people who knew Orry, experts on costume design to have their opinion on his work and what costume designers do and hoping we had some wonderful clips of his work. But we wanted a narrative thread of Orry’s journey as well. That’s the inspiration, and many people love it. Over six Q&As across Australia with many wonderful audiences, in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney and so often I have someone put their hand up and asking how we come up with Orry in the boat, they love it.
I think my review was mainly nitpicking, but it did take me a while to get used to it.
I think if you’re not prepared for it, and come in as most critics will, cold, and expecting a certain documentary of clips and Angela Lansbury and Jane Fonda talking, at the beginning you might think, “What’s this?”. Now that everyone’s talking about it people might feel different. Part of the reason I do these documentaries, as a filmmaker I want to take risks and Katherine and I knew this was a risk, and that was part of the fun. That’s why I do these little documentaries in between the features. I’ve got great freedom – though no money – and I can play around with ideas and concepts. Yes there’s a theatrical side to it, but Darren is so brilliant that people end up forgetting he’s in a boat and can go along with his journey and are quite moved by him.
When you did reach out to people like Angela Lansbury and Jane Fonda and Jack Warner’s daughter, were you surprised with the response, by his reputation still in those circles, and how eager were people to come out and talk about him?
It wasn’t easy to get everyone in, that was part of the journey. We’re very proud in the end we got such a wonderful group to speak so frankly and warmly and openly. In the beginning Angela was the very first person, she was in Australia doing Driving Miss Daisy and I managed to meet her backstage after one of her matinees. Her first reaction was that it was so long ago, it was only one film and that she barely remembered it because she had issues in her own life with her children, though she enjoyed going to Greece for the film. But then she said one thing to me at that point, that “[they] all knew how famous he was” – and I said that’s all we needed in the film, putting him in perspective of who he was in his career. She very kindly agreed to do her interview while doing eight shows a week at 86, and we sent her the DVD and she looked at it and did an incredible interview, and had analysed her clothes and had lots to say. Then she surprised us all by going online and looking up all the Bette Davis films, so when I started asking her about costume design generally, she ended up being a complete Bette Davis expert because she remembered seeing those films as a young person, and in the end we had this fantastic interview with Angela about much more than just the one film she did with Orry.
Jane Fonda I actually had read and researched about, and interestingly in her own autobiography she didn’t mention the three films she did with him at the beginning of her career. Her biographer mentioned one and that Jane wasn’t happy with those films, and that’s the response we got from her agent, that she wasn’t keen to talk about them. It took a bit of wrangling and my passionate letters to Jane saying that they may not have been perfect films, but that she looked amazing in them, that he did a great job and that [she was] the only person we know who could talk about Orry really well because [she] did three films with him, and when you do three films with someone you become close in your working relationship. One of Jane’s closest friends was a producer I worked with years ago in Hollywood and she spoke to Jane and then we got a response and literally said we’d be ready and can get you in and out in twenty minutes and she came with her piece she wanted to say – I’d asked her a number of questions about Orry and costumes – and she ended up staying an extra hour, and got this amazing interview. All these wonderful things to say about Some Like It Hot, which brings the house down, and she finally got very emotional about Orry and about her era, as I realised it was her father’s era. Jezebel, which he designed for Bette Davis, well Jane’s father was the male lead in that film, and she was born just after it wrapped. There was this great connection and it was wonderful that she gave so much in the end and spoke so warmly.
Of course, I actually hadn’t made that connection, of course it’s Henry Fonda who takes Jezebel to the ball with that famous red dress.
It is, which is emotional as it talks about the end of the golden age of cinema, she’s thinking about the end of an era and the end of her father’s era as well.
Much of the film early on is about his relationship with a young Cary Grant. I wanted to ask, were you anticipating or did you have to deal with his estate?
There were a lot rumours on the internet about Orry and Cary, and this was something we wanted to check the facts about. And the key person here is Scotty Bowers, the fixer – people who don’t know what that means, is essentially a unpaid pimp, and he’s written an infamous book about his role behind the scenes in Hollywood.
I’ve read it, it’s good stuff!
Yes, Scotty is 90 and amazing, at the beginning of the book he is picked up by a chubby man in a Green Bentley with an English accent as a young marine on Hollywood Boulevard, and that was our Orry, and they were friends for many many years. We decided with the Grant family that there was no point trying to talk to them – the people who are alive are his last two wives, who he married in his late 50s and then late 70s, so they would not have known Orry. And his daughter is online saying “my father is not gay” and so on, so there’s no real point. It’s not a film about what someone’s sexuality is. First of all there’s no point – does any daughter know their parents’ sex life? They probably shouldn’t. I think that we’re not A Current Affair, interested in some subjective debate about it. The heart of the film is about two young men who started off together and helped each other trying to make it both in theatre and film. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty, and the pressures that are still on leading men to cover up their sexuality. There’s still a sense that audiences won’t see a leading man playing a lover if they know he’s actually gay, so I understand the incredible pressure on Cary – and I don’t think he’s gay, I think he was probably bisexual – but I don’t think it really matters. In our story what matters is that Orry was someone who was very brave, there was a lot of pressure on costume designers to have marriages and the other two leading designers had sham marriages, while I thought it was admirable that he was someone of great integrity and refused to be bullied. When it’s shown in America – at this point its just showing in Australia – you can’t defame the dead, my producer’s answer was. So hopefully we’re right!
Through his life, Cary did sue many people for hinting he was gay, right up until his early 80s when he sued Chevy Chase for doing a sketch on Saturday Night Live showing him as slightly gay. I just think that’s sad, really. One story from one of our very credible sources, William Mann and Gay Hollywood – a wonderful book, which is why he’s one of our key interviewees – he said that after all the research he did about many characters and the pressure and homophobia in Hollywood, a maître d’ of a leading hotel said that he used to see Cary and Randolph Scott, two white-haired old men, who used to meet for dinner a couple of times a year in a small back restaurant in this hotel, and as he walked by he saw they were holding hands under the table. Two white-haired, elderly gentlemen, and I think that is very sad for what it says about society and the lives that we expect from our actors who play out our fantasises, our sexual fantasies on screen.
Women He’s Undressed had its World Premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, with whom you’ve had quite a storied relationship – they showed your short films One Hundred a Day and Gretel in 1974 – as a director and now patron. How do you describe your relationship to the festival, and how crucial are these festivals to the production and distribution of Australian films?
Well the most crucial ones to financing are the ones that invest! I think that’s the Adelaide and Melbourne Festivals, who have come in as investors. I’m a passionate patron of Sydney Film Festival, I go every year, I was the first Jury President of the Official Competition which I think was a great initiative, and couldn’t be more thrilled that you see each year younger and younger people coming, it was just wonderful and wherever I went, like to George St, coming out of a film and seeing the queues for next film, I think they’ve done a magnificent job and it’s so great to see a new generation coming through. When I started going, three quarters of the Festival were senior citizens with their thermoses and rugs and so on, and that it was the old film buff festival, so it’s fantastic, especially when we keep saying that young people don’t go to movies anymore and stick with downloads. To see them out, queuing to get into films, it’s just such a fantastic feeling sitting in an audience (so long as no one is rattling their Malteser bags) and to hear the laughter together. But I was incredibly nervous when Women He’s Undressed ran at the State Theatre, it’s a sophisticated audience and we’d only had one little preview, on the ship…
On Princess Cruises!
Yes! At their art deco theatre, it was very appropriate for our man in the boat, it was a lovely idea by the Festival. And the next night with thousands of people at the State, we had a wonderful reaction and I’d heard they were also running it at the Cremorne Orpheum, where I wondered how successful it would be. Yet we held a Q&A and people queued around the block. We filled the main theatre with 800 people, and it was great; we got all the laughs, and a great Q&A session. So now I hope there are others that will come and see it next weekend! It’s so tough now – not just for Australian films, but any films – things will be on that I want to see, and yet if you don’t see it in the first two weeks it’s off. And opening in winter as well – although it’s a nice cosy place to be in!
It certainly is. Thanks so much for speaking with us and best of luck with the film’s release!