Gillian Armstrong is best known for directing the likes of Charlotte Gray, Oscar & Lucinda and Little Women, but here she returns to the documentary arena for a film about Orry-Kelly. It’s not a name you’ll necessarily recognise, although you will probably know some of his work – Ingrid Bergman’s costumes in Casablanca, Marilyn Monroe’s frocks in Some Like It Hot, the western clothes in Oklahoma! and all manner of dresses for Bette Davis.
He won three Oscars (making him Australia’s most prolific Academy Award winner until fellow costume designer Catherine Martin picked up her third and fourth gongs for The Great Gatsby (2013)), and to many in the filmmaking community he’s a bit of a legend. He was also an alcoholic and he was gay, something he didn’t hide but didn’t publicly flaunt either. Rumours suggest he may have had an intimate relationship with Cary Grant when they roomed together shortly after they both arrived in the US, although that’s never been confirmed.
Armstrong’s film mixes dramatic recreations with actors narrating Kelly’s story, alongside plenty of interviews. Armstrong’s Hollywood connections ensure she gets some great people involved, including those who worked with him such as Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury (the film is worth watching just to hear the acting legend say the word ‘tits’ in a wonderfully offhand way), as well as a long list of some of the greatest costume designers of the past few decades, alongside Hollywood historians and critics who help fill in the gaps.
The movie shows the difficulty of telling true stories about gay people from the past, which is that because so much had to be hidden and not spoken about, decades later it’s tough to know the real truth. Nobody knows whether Kelly and Cary Grant were boyfriends as new immigrants, despite many rumours over the years (in Grant’s case, rumours have swirled ever since his heyday, and not just about Kelly, but they were very successfully squashed so it’s impossible to know the truth). The film attempts to get around this by getting an actor to play Kelly and narrate his own life. It allows Women He’s Undressed to very strongly suggest they were lovers, while not 100% saying that.
Some may feel this semi-fictionalised approached is cheating and not what a documentary ought to do, but it’s actually a fairly effective technique, as you accept it as a dramatic recreation and therefore a possible but not definite truth. It certainly demonstrates the difficulty of talking about gay Hollywood of the past, which is also brought out by the interviewees. They discuss how it’s known that many people were blacklisted after they refused to fully hide their sexuality, but many ‘played the game’ by lying about their private lives and/or keeping it exceptionally discreet. They were helped by studios who didn’t want scandal and so worked hard to brush hints and rumours about their employees under the rug (or if that was too difficult, they were pretty much banished from the industry and never mentioned again). As a result, it’s now almost impossible to know the absolute truth.
Even apart from the aspects that by necessity involve a little speculation (although it should be noted it’s pretty reasonable speculation based on what is verifiable), Kelly’s story is a fascinating one. He’s a man who was very important to the history of Hollywood, but whose contribution has been overlooked by most. He was innovative and endlessly inventive and some of his costumes are absolutely incredible, but he was also difficult and belligerent when drunk (which at times was more often than not). As a result, he went in and out of favour, creating some of the most magnificent costumes of the 1930s, before being shoved aside and then make several comebacks.
Although the dramatic recreations do create a bit of ambivalence about how much of what you’re seeing is true and how much conjecture, it certainly makes for an interesting watch. Even irrespective of the fictionalised parts, the great selection of interviewees and the fact Kelly is a genuinely interesting subject ensure the documentary succeeds.
It’s a fascinating insight into the ‘golden’ age of Hollywood, taking in how the studio system worked and the difficulties of being gay within that industry at the time. It’s also a love letter to the art of costume design, an aspect of film that is often completely ignored. Women He’s Undressed does an excellent job of showing how important it is, from how it helped create the public perception of Hollywood glamour, to quite how intrinsic it is to our image of many of the greatest movies ever made. Whether it’s the wonderfully OTT costumes of Busby Berkeley’s musicals or the wonderful style of Casablanca, they are vital to what made the movies work, and in those cases it was Orry-Kelly who created them.
Overall Verdict: A fascinating look at Tinsel Town, being gay during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and a testament to the importance of costume design. The dramatic recreations may be problematic, but they’re effective and the interviews are great.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac