Dark Victory (1939), Now Voyager (1940), Casablanca (1940), American in Paris (1951), Auntie Mame (1958), Some Like it Hot (1959), and Gypsy (1963) are just a few films that he added to his resume.
While many today will name Edith Head when put on the spot to name a costume designer, she wasn’t the only one in Hollywood. Head’s costumes were lovely and she deserves all her accolades, but many costume designers seem to be cast in a shadow as dark as her round black glasses.
“Women He’s Undressed” (2015), a new documentary directed by Gillian Armstrong, gives audiences the opportunity to learn more about the prolific costume designer, Orry-Kelly.
The film tells the “behind the seams” story of Orry-Kelly, but it’s not all about costuming. It delves into what it was like for Orry-Kelly to be gay during a time when it wasn’t accepted. And while others played the studio game in homophobic Hollywood and got married, such as costume designers Travis Blanton and Adrian, Orry-Kelly wasn’t willing to do so.
Based on his previously unpublished memoirs, “Women He’s Undressed” begins with Orry-Kelly’s early life in Kiama, Australia, where his father wasn’t pleased that his son enjoyed creating costumes for his puppets. As a child, he was also trained as a painter. Orry-Kelly moved away from the small farm town to Sydney, Australia, which better fit his lifestyle. He then moved to New York, living in open-minded Greenwich village, and eventually found success in homophobic Hollywood.
Who Was His Great Love?
Much of the story revolves around a budding and then broken love affair Orry-Kelly had with Archibald Leach, better known as Cary Grant. The two met and lived together in New York before either were famous. They then moved to Hollywood together and Grant was partly responsible for Kelly’s break into Hollywood. But Grant started distancing himself and “playing the game” and surrounding himself with women.
The film details each of Grant’s marriages and Orry-Kelly predicting the divorces. The two had almost no contact in Hollywood until working on “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) together, and Grant made a jab at him by calling him a “Queen.” When Grant learns Orry-Kelly is writing his memoirs, he pays him a visit to see what he’s going to write. Orry-Kelly never spoke about his romance with Grant, and the memoirs weren’t published until 2015.
Orry-Kelly in Hollywood
Orry-Kelly’s career had many highs and lows. From 1932 to 1944 he was Warner Brothers’ chief designer and was a personal favorite of Bette Davis, but then he was fired from Warner Brothers after World War II. He hit a resurgence with each Academy Award he won:
• American in Paris (1951)—shared with Walter Plunkett and Irene Scharaff
• Les Girls (1957)
• Some Like it Hot (1960)
Orry-Kelly had very specific and strong opinions about costumes for his leading ladies, such as that no actress of his would be seen doing a love scene in floral or puffy sleeves.
Ruth Chatterton said he made “well-bred clothes.”
He was responsible for Dolores Del Rio’s signature backless dresses because she had “a back that does not need dressing.” When he worked on the Busby Berkeley Warner Brothers musicals in the 1930s, such as “42nd Street” (1933), he tried to get the dancers “as close to naked” as he could. In “Gold Diggers of 1933,” he used 54,000 coins in the “We’re in the Money” number, which featured scantily clad ladies dressed in currency.
He worked with the top stars, like Bette Davis, Ruth Chatterton, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell—costuming their flaws and helping them with their insecurities.
For example, Natalie Wood was only 5 foot 2 inches and flat chested, but in her costumes for “Gypsy,” she looks curvy and tall. Kelly padded out the chest, hips and put beading down the center to make her look much taller.
“He was a master of color and obviously, a master of dress making, but his training as artist was really the key to his career,” said costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis in an interview.
The film includes engaging and insightful interviews with film historian Leonard Maltin and stars such as Angela Lansbury and Jane Fonda, who were costumed by Orry-Kelly, and costume designers Colleen Atwood, Ann Roth, Catherine Martin and Deborah Nadoolman Landis.
“There was something wonderful about working with a great talent that built clothes specifically for this character for you,” Jane Fonda said in the documentary.
“Women He’s Undressed” is engaging and fast-paced. It sheds light on a person who has just been a name in the credits.
However, the storytelling method missed the mark with me. While information is shared through movie clips, interviews and photos, Gillian Armstrong chose to move the documentary along with live-action actors. Darren Gilshenan plays Orry-Kelly, rowing in a boat throughout the film and telling his story. We also hear from Orry-Kelly’s mother, Florence Kelly played by Deborah Kennedy, who is either hanging laundry or sitting at a dressing table. Each time we go back to Gilshenan’s character, it disrupts the flow of the film. I feel taken out of what I was just watching.
The first half of the film is more live action than not, but once Orry-Kelly hits Hollywood, there is less of it. There are also voice actors for subjects such as Bette Davis, Jack Warner and Kay Francis, and it’s simply unfortunate. If the voices sounded more like the subjects, maybe it would be passable but it’s both disappointing and off-putting
The choice of live action narrative can be creative, but it’s not a style I personally enjoy. In the filmmaker’s notes, Armstrong writes she hadn’t heard of Orry-Kelly before being approached for the project. I’m curious if the actor decision was made because she didn’t think any of us had heard of him either and thought it would keep those unfamiliar with Orry-Kelly engaged.
But I think the biggest mistake in the film was not interviewing Orry-Kelly’s grandniece, Janet Fowler, who only appears during the credits. She pops up to say that she’s been holding on to his memoirs for 40 years, and that’s what the film is based of. You would think, she would have played an integral part in the story.
After seeing the majority of the films that Orry-Kelly costumed, “Women He’s Undressed” is a fascinating documentary, allowing film lovers to learn more about the man who designed beautiful clothes. Much of his life wasn’t easy, but it was awfully interesting.
How can I see “Women He’s Undressed”?
“Women He’s Undressed” premieres at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles today, July 29, at 7 p.m. On Aug. 9, 2016, the documentary is available on iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, WolfeOnDemand.com and on DVD through major retailers.