'Women He's Undressed': Sydney Review

A prosaic telling but catnip nonetheless. 

Gillian Armstrong chronicles the life and loves of Orry-Kelly, the Australian costume designer of '42nd Street' and 'Casablanca.'

Gillian Armstrong made her name with her Cannes-storming first film, about an independent-minded dreamer desperate to escape her staid Victorian life in the Australian bush. My Brilliant Career would be an apt title for her latest, too: a rollicking if somewhat ham-handed documentary about the life of costume designer Orry-Kelly, who grew up on the Australian coast before hotfooting it to Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, where he worked on The Maltese Falcon, Oklahoma! and Some Like It Hot.

Women He’s Undressed adopts a similar approach to the director’s 2006 documentary Unfolding Florence, about the life of designer Florence Broadhurst, which melded talking heads and tongue-in-cheek interstitial graphics with actors. Here, Darren Gilshenan (Top of the Lake) as Orry critiques his own life and career direct to camera while sitting in a dinghy in an empty studio, while Deborah Kennedy (The Sum of Us) as Orry’s mother offers some homespun punditry at the clothesline.

As a child, Orry (as he’s referred to throughout) falls for showbiz after seeing a panto in Sydney. He goes home and spends all day inside dressing his doll’s house, much to the chagrin of his surf-lifesaver father. As Catherine Martin, one of several designers interviewed by Armstrong, puts it: “Being a gay man growing up in an Australian country town must have been difficult.” By 1922 he’s in New York, where Orry tries his luck as a chorus player but lacks the arm strength to lift the hoofers. His mother writes devoted letters to her son with the eternal sign-off: “Be sure to keep your bowels open and you won’t get appendicitis.”

In Greenwich Village, Orry shacks up with a young Archie Leach. The duo manufacture colorful ties for the fashionable set while Orry begins to find steady work in the theater. He dresses the likes of Ethel Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn, and applies his skill as an artist to a range of bawdy nightclub interiors — one, famously, of chimps getting frisky. When Wall Street crashes, the boys find themselves in debt to some gangster types, but are allowed to flee to Los Angeles because Orry’s “da guy dat done da monkeys.”

The Los Angeles that Orry and the nascent Cary Grant lob into is described here, a touch hyperbolically, as the most homophobic city in the world; a Hollywood run by hardscrabble Europeans who held little truck with Village freedoms. Grant briskly takes up with Randolph Scott, and their infamous photo spread in Hollywood magazine, documenting domestic bliss in Santa Monica, gives Paramount conniptions. Orry’s relationship with Grant — whom he runs into occasionally at the fights and gets “the Cary Grant mask” — is the through line to Armstrong’s story, though just how much Grant really meant to Orry is hard to parse. The real Orry remains elusive, and a brief snippet of him accepting an Oscar for Some Like It Hot (1959) only highlights the disparity between him and Gilshenan as his onscreen avatar.

There’s a touch of the hagiographic, too, especially as many of those interviewed, such as Leonard Maltin, costume historian David Chierichetti and Hepburn biographer William J. Mann, didn’t know the man himself. This is perhaps why Ann Roth, who worked with Orry on 1955’s Oklahoma!, registers so vividly. Roth’s irascibility does as much to conjure a glimmer of the old Hollywood as any archival clips, of which the film is stuffed.

And no wonder: this was a man who dressed up to 60 pictures a year. To cover even a fraction of them, Armstrong has to race over a lot of ground, weaving in commentary from Australian designers Martin, Michael Wilkinson (300) and Kym Barrett (The Matrix) as well as Deborah Nadoolman Landis (Raiders of the Lost Ark), whose admiration for Orry’s skill is illuminatingly specific. “Orry’s training as an artist was the key to his career,” says Landis, and Women He’s Undressed is most interesting when delving into his work rather than his love life.

Landis describes Orry’s bravura use of color on films such as An American in Paris (1951) and Jezebel (1938), whose inflaming red dress had to be designed so as to register in black and white. His skill at dressing (and flattering) the female form made him invaluable to the likes of Bette Davis, whose unconventional look required a discreet hand. And as a designer Orry lacked vanity: in Mr. Skeffington (1944), his costumes for Davis got progressively worse as the character’s shallow self-absorption balloons.

Women He’s Undressed ends with a revelation: the discovery of Orry’s memoir — Women I’ve Undressed — which has been kept safe by his family down under for the last 50 years. The man’s old-school gentlemanliness shines through this bio, so anybody hoping for some celebrity kiss and tell when the book is published in Oz in August might be disappointed. They shouldn’t be: On the evidence of Armstrong’s documentary, Orry’s affairs were the least interesting thing about him.

Production Company: Damien Parer Productions
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Deborah Kennedy, Louis Alexander, Nathaniel Middleton, Ted Maynard, Jeanette Cronin, Tyler Coppin, Sandy Gore
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Writer: Katherine Thomson
Producers: Damien Parer, Gillian Armstrong
Executive Producers: Graham Buckeridge, Marian Macgowan, Michael Wrenn
Director of photography: Anna Howard
Production designer: Ross Wallace
Costume Designer: Edie Kurzer
Editor: Nicholas Beauman
Composer: Cezary Skubiszewski
Casting Director: Anousha Zarkesh
Sales: Rialto

No rating, 99 minutes