Women He’s UndressedJuly 18, 2015
Orry-Kelly, the subject of Gillian Armstrong’s documentary, Women He’s Undressed, is one of Australia’s unsung culture heroes. From 1932 to 1963 he designed the costumes for hundreds of Hollywood films, winning three Academy Awards. His credits include classics such as 42nd St. (1933), Jezebel (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Oklahoma! (1955).
Born Orry George Kelly in Kiama, in 1897, the unusual name came from an ancient king of the Isle of Man, his father’s lost homeland. In his early years Orry was known more prosaically as “Jack”.
Having been sent to Sydney at the age of 17 to learn banking, Orry soon became preoccupied with the stage. He worked as an actor and a painter, creating murals and set designs. He also fell in with the city’s homosexual subculture, and eventually, the criminal underworld. In 1921 he felt sufficiently threatened to take the radical step of relocating to New York.
There he eked out a living as a tailor’s assistant while treading the boards in minor roles on Broadway. He also formed a relationship with a handsome, penniless young Englishman named Archie Leach. For years it was Orry who brought in the meagre income upon which the duo subsisted, until Archie’s acting career took off – albeit under the name, Cary Grant.
Falling into bad company again, Orry fled New York to avoid trouble with gangsters. In 1931 he moved to Hollywood, where Grant helped him secure employment designing costumes for the studios. It was one of the last times he would be assisted by his old protégé, who was being transformed into a Hollywood leading man. The irony was that Grant had formed a new relationship with cowboy action hero, Randolph Scott, which prospered until the studios decided these masculine idols needed to be separated and married off.
Orry wasted no time in making his mark, becoming chief costume designer at Warner Bros. in 1932, where he would stay until 1944 when he had one too many disputes with studio boss, Jack Warner. From this point his career was a roller-coaster of crashes and comebacks. His problems were exacerbated by alcoholism and by the huge pressures of being responsible for thousands of outfits a year.
Orry-Kelly, as he called himself, is a fabulous subject for a documentary. Not only does his career unfold like a movie, it provides the perfect excuse to show numerous clips from Hollywood’s golden age, and interview the stars that knew him personally.
The subtext of the film is the way Hollywood at first seemed to tolerate homosexuals, then turned to various forms of petty persecution. Under the Hays Code, which was brought down in 1930 and lingered until the 1960s, a new puritanism was imposed on the studios.
Orry-Kelly was one of the few gay men who never pretended to be anything else, although he was secretive about his private life. His early relationship with Cary Grant, who would be married five times, was a taboo subject. Although Orry-Kelly wrote his memoirs it is believed that Grant helped ensure they were never published.
With such priceless material it is hard to understand why Armstrong and scriptwriter, Katherine Thomson, would want to tell Orry-Kelly’s story with actors, pantomime sets, and a terrible air of artificiality. As a figure whose entire life was spent creating illusions, it is the reality of Orry-Kelly’s life that commands our attention.
Darren Gilshenan is enisted to play Orry-Kelly, talking conspiratorially to the camera as if he had come back from the grave to be our tour guide. It’s a dumb idea that would ruin a lesser story. The intrusions are so irritating it seems unbelievable the filmmakers couldn’t see what a burden they were inflicting on the audience.
The problem, one suspects, is the desire to be innovative and creative with the documentary format. But the great contemporary documentarists such as Alex Gibney understand that one need not rule out conventional approaches, no matter how many times they’ve been used in the past. Being ‘innovative’ just to be different is a recipe for disaster. In any work of art the material must exert a decisive influence over the final form, whether we are taking about a documentary or an abstract painting. We can be thankful the subject of this film is strong enough to survive the director’s determined efforts to spoil her own party.
Women He’s Undressed
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
Written by Katherine Thomson
Starring Darren Gilshenan, Deborah Kennedy, Louis Alexander, Nathaniel Middleton, Lara Cox
Australia, rated PG, 99 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th July, 2015.