Women He's Undressed: A Documentary on a Hollywood Designer
Don’t know who Orry-Kelly is? Or maybe you do. Either way, you’re bound to learn a thing or two you didn’t know about one of the the Golden Age of Cinema’s most important off screen creators: the costume designer in this documentary by acclaimed Australian filmmaker, Gillian Armstrong.
I was somewhat hesitant to write this review. Not because the film is bad, but because I believe that most of the audience to whom I generally direct my commentary will not be happy with some of its content – particularly relating to a specific super star of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I hope my readers are more open-minded than that, but we cinema fans tend to like our stars to be as they are on screen, regardless of facts. That being said, you should know that the new documentary Women He’s Undressed is a very unusual production opposed to the documentaries in which you may be more accustomed. It’s a biography about the legendary costume designer, Orry-Kelly, in which the director, Gillian Armstrong presents a fascinating tale in a way that is simultaneously straightforward and fanciful, honestly truthful and completely fictionalized, as well as documented and made up. The unusual mixing of styles, one that is new to the filmmaker, makes for a thoroughly entertaining tale.
Veteran Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong, who splits her time between documentaries (Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better) and narratives (My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel), mixes recreations of Orry-Kelly's life with testimonies from intimates, admirers, and Hollywood royalty to create an unforgettable portrait of one of Hollywood's grand godfathers of glamour. Along with the standard talking heads of those who knew, or worked with, or admired the three-time academy award winner you have highly produced scenes depicting Orry-Kelly as “he” narrates certain parts of his recently published memoirs (still unpublished in the US). These written and directed elements show characters portrayed by actors staging what might be called representations of memory depicted in a way that suggests a dream-like world. This threw me off at first, as I generally detest reenactments in a documentary. However, I learned quickly that these moments of fiction were not meant to be realistic in any way.
It is quite obvious that Armstrong is not trying to pass off these fanciful recreations as anything else but fabrications that offer information that could only be gleaned from the subject himself via his memoirs. Deborah Kennedy, the actress who plays Orry-Kelly’s mother, Florence is particularly entertaining and a welcome site between realities. Of course the tricky part would be in presenting the man himself, but actor Darren Gilshenan does an admirable job, imbuing the role with the charm of an Australian puck. Those actually interviewed include such luminaries as Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, Leonard Maltin, and costume designers Colleen Atwood, Anne Roth, Kym Barrett and Deborah Nadoolman Landis.
Generally, most people don’t know who Orry-Kelly is, not even those who work in the movie business. This surprised me as I thought everyone in the industry knew him. But then I’m a huge classic film fan who thinks everyone should know when the first Hollywood red carpet premier happened, at which theater, screening what film, and know who stared in it (Douglas Fairbank’s Robin Hood at the Egyptian in Hollywood in 1922). Perhaps you are more familiar with Adrian? Oleg Cassini? Certainly, Edith Head? These are all names of famous Hollywood costume designers. And Orry-Kelly is considered to be among the greats of his profession. This is a fact that Armstrong is adamant about sharing with the world, especially since she too was previously ignorant of her fellow countryman. She had never been a particular fan of classic films (her words) from the era in which Orry-Kelly worked. Her film school influences came from the French New Wave, Antonioni, Fellini, and Bergman; essentially everything that is the antithesis of the Hollywood Studio System, which at the time of her education was looked upon as being dead. So, it was her research for this documentary that gave her exposure to the wonders that are considered classic Hollywood cinema. She has, “huge respect for them now” and declares to have a favorite actor, film and director from the Golden Age all because of her research.
I understand why Armstrong felt compelled to honor Orry-Kelly’s rise and fall, and rise again fairy-tale story. He was one of the most prolific and spectacularly talented costume designers of Hollywood's golden age after all, and deserves the recognition as one of the first Australians to make such a lasting mark upon the film industry. His career spanned four defining decades of cinema glamour, and his work dressed the crème de la crème of the silver screen including Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, and Shirley Jones among many, many others while working on such classics as Jezebel, Casablanca, Oklahoma, Some Like It Hot, An American In Paris and Auntie Mame! So why doesn’t the public know him better. Unfortunately, it’s probably because of old-fashioned prejudice.
Orry-Kelly was outspokenly gay at a time when Hollywood was deeply conservative. The film addresses this but in a some-what light-handed and coy manner. Although Orry-Kelly’s own accounts of life behind the Hollywood golden curtain are legendary, it is brought up several times throughout the film that he was obligated to keep a life-long secret that most classic film fans are going to find difficult to accept, regardless of the fact that the movie is inspired by Orry-Kelly’s own long-lost memoir. (SPOILER: here comes the previously mentioned challenging content). Women He’s Undressed unveils the secret of one of Hollywood's most singular talents: Orry-Kelly had a very close, live-in relationship during his younger days in New York with a handsome British actor named Archie Leach, who later changed his name to Cary Grant. However, nothing is ever said point blank about this fact, which I think is a serious shortcoming of the film.
There are small intervals depicting their life together but without mentioning the “actor” by name until late in the film. There have always been rumors about Grant’s younger days (Randolph Scott) but without any absolute proof. And the film never provides anything absolute either, relying instead on the audience to “connect the dots”. I think that’s a bit of a cop out and think it really should have been discussed plainly. Supposedly, Grant asked his friend to never speak of their early days, and the designer kept this promise to his death, and well beyond (Armstrong was particularly impressed with this fact since Orry-Kelly was known to be a big mouth and drunk).
Orry-Kelly worked behind the scenes, he died relatively young, and the people who worked with were major super stars. One can only speculate that the legend of the onscreen personalities has simply overshadowed Orry-Kelly all these years, thus diminishing his presence in cinematic history. Women He’s Undressed does it part well to correct this historical oversight. Self described as a must-see fashion extravaganza for film lovers, the documentary offers viewers a never before seen glimpse into the charismatic and unapologetically bold life of Orry-Kelly. I concur that, even with its oddities and shortcomings, this is a documentary anyone can enjoy. Films that honor the unsung heroes of Hollywood don’t come along that often. Catch this one while you can and form your own opinion about whether or not the rumors are true, and whether or not it even matters.
Released August 9, 2016 across all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and at WolfeOnDemand.com, Women He’s Undressed will also be available via Wolfe Video and many major retailers. If you happen to be in Los Angeles you can catch it in an actual theater at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood.