Director: Gillian Armstrong
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My 2015 Chicago International Film Festival coverage kicks off today, and the film under consideration is a real doozy from the brilliant Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong has largely abandoned the feature format she plied with such skill to turn out such enduring films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), and my favorite version of Little Women (1994), and turned to documentary filmmaking. While spending about the last 40 years creating her version of Michael Apted’s Up series featuring three girls from Adelaide, Armstrong has kept her focus on women’s experiences and her homeland. Women He’s Undressed combines these two concerns as Armstrong creates a hybrid documentary about costume designer Orry-Kelly, the Australian from the tiny coastal town of Kiama, NSW, who made it big on the other side of the Pacific dressing some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.
Armstrong combines traditional talking-head interviews and clips from some of the nearly 300 films for which Orry-Kelly made costumes with depictions of Kelly, engagingly played by Australian TV star Darren Gilshenan, breaking the third wall to speak directly to the audience about his life from a stage, the place where Kelly first gained inspiration and experience in show business. As seems to be something of the norm with biopics these days, Women He’s Undressed starts with Kelly’s death, as eight young women dressed in red gowns serve as pallbearers to a rowboat. The dresses refer to Kelly’s most notorious creation, the red gown Bette Davis’ defiant character wore to the white ball in Jezebel (1938), and the boat the conveyance Armstrong uses throughout the film to propel Kelly away from Australia and through the episodes of his life. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean, the horizon beckons you every day,” Kelly says early in the film.
Costume designer Ann Roth, who worked with Kelly, questions Armstrong’s project at the very beginning. “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is!?” A string of snippets showing the costumes he made on the backs of a slew of famous actresses, from Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) to Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) and Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), confirm that even if people don’t know precise details about Orry-Kelly, they certainly know his work.
The film proceeds roughly chronologically from Orry George Kelly’s childhood and takes liberal dives into his experience of being an out gay man in homophobic Hollywood. His nurturing mother, played by Deborah Kennedy, encouraged his art studies and theatrical ambitions, while his father, a tailor and reformed drunk, propagated a bright pink carnation he dubbed the “Orry,” in oblique reference to Kelly’s being “different” despite his father’s attempts to drum the tendency out of him.
Much is made in the film of Kelly’s “matehood” with Archie Leach when they were both struggling actors living together in New York. Through Kelly’s narration, we learn that the two had a lot in common and subsidized their anything-goes lifestyle in Greenwich Village by making and selling Kelly-Leach ties by the hundreds. Throughout the film, Armstrong returns to Archie’s transformation into Cary Grant, how Grant played the studio game by giving up his relationship with actor Randolph Scott to marry actress Virginia Cherrill; his subsequent suicide attempt, which Kelly blames on denying his true nature; and his later failed marriages. This throughline provides the private part of Kelly’s biography that producer/director Eric Sherman says he undoubtedly had but had been secretive about to the end of his life. Grant, who never answered any questions about his sexuality, doesn’t come off very well in the film, but this again would probably be true to Kelly’s undoubted sense of betrayal and abandonment.
The main event, of course, is Kelly’s spectacularly successful career. He was hired by Warner Bros. to bring some gloss to their proletarian style of filmmaking, and he outdid himself. He worked with colleagues Adrian and Travis Banton to make Kay Francis Hollywood’s “best dressed woman,” and Ruth Chatterton, another Warner Bros. star, called his designs “well bred.” His gowns for 42nd Street (1933) show the energy of the unforgettable penny costumes and double-hooped skirts that he may or may not have had a hand in creating; the film suggests that he admired the creative volcano that was Busby Berkeley. It was his working relationship with Bette Davis, however, that provided him with his greatest challenge.
It’s fascinating to learn that Davis refused to allow Kelly to use a metal underwire to boost her sagging breasts because she feared the metal would give her cancer, so he had to design other foundations for her. Armstrong shows us clip after clip of Davis and the challenges her figure posed to Kelly. His tests of fabrics for the red gown in Jezebel were extensive and successful, as many people who have seen the black-and-white film swear it was red that they saw. Another figure that gave Kelly trouble was Natalie Wood’s. Her too-slender form did not make her the ideal candidate for the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Armstrong takes a peek inside one of her costumes for the film to show the padding Kelly used to fill out her breasts and hips.
Angela Lansbury, who considers herself a character actress, confirms that Kelly’s skill went beyond making beautiful clothes to helping actors inhabit their roles and enhance their performances by matching the mood of each scene. This comment is illustrated through several of the films he designed. For example, clips of Now, Voyager (1942) show the transformation of Bette Davis from a dowdy, mentally unstable woman to a glamorpuss of classic elegance; however, the real touch of genius Kelly brought to the film was in the last scene, when he responded to Davis’ desire that her clothes not detract from the drama of the moment. He puts her in a simple blouse and skirt, allowing her face to register as the most important element in the frame. In another anecdote, we learn that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis went into the ladies restroom at the studio in their Some Like It Hot (1959) disguises to see if anyone would notice them—nobody did!
Kelly also liked to push the envelope of the stuffy 1950s. His designs for Auntie Mame allowed him to create flamboyant, colorful outfits for the outsized personality of the main character, a visual tweak to the Establishment that defined Mame Dennis. He was determined to bring all of Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal to the screen in Some Like It Hot. Jane Fonda, who worked with him on some forgettable movies, is interviewed about this film and says that despite not being gay, she was transfixed by Monroe’s pregnancy-swollen breasts, which Kelly saved from censorship by some strategic beading.
Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards, and his designs were knocked off for retail sale all over the world, a fact the film suggests galled him given that his own atelier went bust. In the end, his hope for a comeback from cancer was not to be, and his wish that, after years of estrangement, Cary Grant would be one of his pallbearers actually did come true, as Armstrong shows someone scrawl his signature in the funeral guest book that opened the film.
Gillian Armstrong brings almost as much design panache and ingenuity to her film about Orry-Kelly as he had himself. Her strategy of offering a theatrical setting for the imagined scenes with Kelly, complete with stage make-up and tinny sound effects, evoke the era in which he grew up and from which he claimed his influences. The film is hampered only by the familiar talking-heads format that may be necessary to offer detail but interrupts the flow of the film as told by Kelly himself. Where did this script by Katherine Thomson come from? The movie discusses an autobiography Kelly wrote but never published and shows one of his heirs holding it, under orders never to let it slip from her grasp. Did Thomson crib dialog from it? I don’t know. But I can say that as written, the outspoken, entertaining Orry-Kelly in Women He Undressed is as unforgettable as his costumes.
Women He’s Undressed screens Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 28 at 5 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.