Women He’s Undressed

Gillian Armstrong pays tribute to a little-known Australian who designed costumes for 285 films, winning 3 Oscars.


Orry-Kelly is a name well-known in Hollywood and by enthusiasts of a golden age. But it is a name that evades the mindset of most ordinary Australians.

The docudrama Women He’s Undressed hopes to rectify that by celebrating the work and personal life of one of cinema’s most gifted costume designers.

Orry-Kelly, born Orry George Kelly, designed costumes for a staggering 285 Hollywood movies. He won 3 Academy Awards –more than any other Australian until another designer, Catherine Martin, came along. Fittingly, Martin is one of several luminaries to lend their voice to this terribly-theatrical doco by director Gillian Armstrong.

Kelly was born in Kiama, NSW in 1897, a coastal location represented in this film through performance scenes by Darren Gilshenan as Kelly and Deborah Kennedy as his mother. A seaside blowhole “explained a lot about me” according to the volatile young man who, as a boy, fell in love with theatre and the dazzle of its costumes.

Gilshenan brings to life the words and dreams of a young Kelly who is drawn to the bright lights of Sydney, where he falls for a “gentleman Jim” of the underworld. Remarkably, in his early 20s he escapes to Broadway befriending Greenwich Village artistes such as George Burns, Gracie Allen and a young Archibald Leach.

He would forge a relationship with the handsome Leach, who in later years would be better known as Cary Grant. New York proved a thriving creative hub, where he worked in the theatre, fell in love, and honed his craft. Later he and Leach hit Hollywood where he worked at Warner Bros.

Over his career Orry-Kelly (an “exotic” hyphenated name at the request of studio boss Jack Warner) designed for the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell, Errol Flynn, Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Betty Grable. He was particularly close to Bette Davis, enhancing her unconventional looks with flattering outfits.

But Cary Grant forged a career of his own, following the studio system protocols that subscribed to hearthrobs in a tinsel town under pressure to affirm family values. Orry-Kelly, frequently locking horns with the likes of Jack Warner, railed against them -all the while designing for films such as Some Like It Hot, Casablanca, Oklahoma, An American in Paris, The Maltese Falcon, Gypsy, 42nd Street and Now, Voyager.

Women He’s Undressed features interviews with Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda, Ann Roth, Catherine Martin, Leonard Maltin, Scotty Bowers, and -rarely- Sydney’s own June Dally-Watkins.

It matters little that Darren Gilshenan bears no resemblance to Kelly, he adds spirit and sentiment to the young designer in scenes that serve as a metaphor and homeland link. Deborah Kennedy adds a colonial earthiness to her Sydney scenes reading letters from Hollywood. Throughout the doco there are archival scenes and photos giving an insight into the talents and rule-breaking of a cinema visionary. Many of the gowns are works of art, influencing generations to come.

The final scene includes a telling footnote which arguably raises more questions than it answers. But Armstrong’s film, based on a screenplay by Katherine Thomson, is undeniably theatrical and helps restore some glory to an underrated Australian artist.

Women He’s Undressed
airs 8:30pm Sunday on Showcase.

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