I don’t know why it took me so long to see this film. Perhaps it’s because I’m not really a fan of black-and-white musicals and comedies of the 1940s and 1950s. I hadn’t heard of Orry-Kelly at all, but I guess I’m not alone in that. It’s largely because Orry-Kelly, three time Oscar winner for costume design is largely unknown in his home country that film maker Gillian Armstrong was drawn to make this documentary about him.
Orry George Kelly (his name was shortened and hyphenated as part of the Hollywood branding: he was ‘Jack’ to his friends) was born and grew up in small-town Kiama on the NSW coast in 1897, at a time and place not friendly to men attracted to gorgeousness and other men. He was drawn to America to pursue an acting career, where he lived for some time with the actor who would become Cary Grant. It was not made public at the time, or for decades afterwards, that he was in a relationship with Cary Grant, and interestingly, his Wikipedia entry is likewise delicate about the liaison. It was through Grant’s influence that Orry-Kelly became Chief Costume designer at Warner Brothers.He designed the costumes for 285 films; at one stage he did fifty films in a year.
Orry-Kelly wrote his memoirs, which have only recently been published. I think that it would be a fascinating read. ACMI, which is screening Women He’s Undressed for a few weeks more is showing an accompanying exhibition. Many of the photographs are annotated by quotes from his memoir, where he displays an incisive, if lacerating wit.
Women He’s Undressed is a documentary, framed by a rather dorky but affectionate current-day staging of the biographical aspects (you are never in any doubt at all that you’re watching a re-creation!), supplemented by talking heads including Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, Catherine Martin and other costume designers. And there’s film clips- lots of them- from the movies that featured his designs: Some Like it Hot, 42nd Street, Casablanca, Auntie Mame. You look at the clips with new eyes.
It’s only on at ACMI for two more Saturdays, I think. Pop into the free exhibition while you’re there.