Australia is a country that prides itself with the success of expats. Whether it be ‘our Hugh’ or ‘our Cate’, we are always happy to applaud and support the success of film stars. Whenever Oscar season rolls around, the nominations are scoured for any possible link to Australia – is there a short film that was co-directed by an Australian? They’re now our hero! So, it’s with some oddity that three time Oscar winner Orry-Kelly isn’t a more well known name in Australian cinematic history.
In fact, thanks to Gillian Armstrong’s stellar docu-drama Women He’s Undressed, this was the first time I was aware of Orry-Kelly as a person. Of course, having seen many of his 302 films that he worked as the costume designer for – Casablanca, 42nd Street, Some Like It Hot – I was subliminally aware of his work, just not of who he was. Armstrong takes the essential story of Kelly’s life from when he was a boy in Kiama, NSW (known as Orry George Kelly) through to his move to New York, and subsequent move (and name change as well) to LA and the land of Hollywood.
The opening third of the film sees the life of Kelly being portrayed by actor Darren Gilshenan, who narrates and ‘performs’ the Australian-era of Kelly’s life. By ‘perform’, he is mostly sitting in a well designed rowboat on a soundstage or on water while talking as Kelly about his life in Kiama and later his move to America and subsequent romance that bloomed there. While Gilshenan does a good job as Kelly, the stage based scenes took a little while getting used to as initially it feels like it’s clashing with the more traditional documentary elements of the story, such as on screen discussions with actresses Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury and costume designers Ann Roth, Catherine Martin and Colleen Atwood.
However, for me at least, the ‘upbringing’ and ‘childhood’ parts of a persons life always tend to fall on the less interesting side, especially compared with their later life endeavours. When Kelly’s career begins, the stage based scenes drop away to reveal footage of Kelly’s grand costumes alongside discussions with costume designers and film historians. For cinephiles, these are exceptionally enjoyable discussions about cinema and the history of costume design.
What is most enlightening though is a certain relationship that Kelly had with a major Hollywood star at the time. This relationship alone is possibly why Kelly’s work may not be as well known in Australia as it should be as it was a relationship that was kept hidden for a long while. I naturally won’t spoil who that particular somebody is as their reveal in the film is shown through a beautiful, and ultimately heartbreaking, relationship. Kelly was gay, and unfortunately during the eras that he was active, being gay was not exactly something that was widely accepted.
Going into Women He’s Undressed, I knew it was about costume design, however, I didn’t expect a great look at what it meant to be a gay man working in Hollywood from the thirties onwards. There is a lot about the history of Hollywood to digest in this brisk 90 minute film. While it doesn’t overstay its welcome, it does feel like it could have an extra ten minutes of history packed in and not suffer for it. Mostly, I would have liked to have seen more about these ‘women he’s undressed’ – as Kelly was a costume designer he grew to learn the actresses he dressed intimately and was a welcome confidant for them at times. Discussions with other actresses about how Kelly’s costumes helped them create their characters are rich with interesting quips to the point that you can’t help but want more of them.
Kelly’s relationship with Bette Davis and Ann Warner (wife to Warner Brothers Studio head, Jack Warner) is beautifully essayed here. Davis’ relationship with Kelly is displayed here wonderfully as his skills as a costume designer (and most importantly, the role of a costume designer) is explored and displayed as extensions of the characters that Davis played. The latter scenes of the film show how Kelly managed to work around the Hay’s Code to show as much of the stunning Marilyn Monroe as possible in Some Like It Hot.
On top of these discussions with actresses are discussions with the aforementioned costume designers. Not only is it great to hear some of current cinemas great costume designers talk about their own work and what inspires them, but also to talk about how somebody like Kelly paved the way for their work. It’s easy to look at cinematographers, directors, actors and writers, and say, well, we can see their influences and how they arrived at this point in their career, but it’s often that we overlook the skills of those who build the world that the actors inhabit.
It’s this fact alone that makes Women He’s Undressed a must-see viewing for anyone who has an interest in film history. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is rich with stories about Hollywood as that industry grew from nothing, and most of all, it’s full with a great story about an Australian icon who has fallen out of recognition with his home country. A Hollywood romance, broken hearts, beautiful women, and most of all, beautiful dresses, this is a grand story and a great chapter in Australian history.
Thanks to this film as well, his unpublished memoir was released in 2015.
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Jane Fonda, Catherine Martin, Colleen Atwood
Written By: Katherine Thomson