If you’re reading this, I assume that you’re a fan of cinema. And can certainly name a handful of directors, and probably producers and scriptwriters, but then it gets trickier. How many established editors can you name? Or cinematographers? How about production manager? Or what about costume designers?!
Most of the people who have designed some of the most iconic images in cinema history are largely forgotten. That’s the nature of the medium – the stars onscreen are mythologized, whilst the technicians behind the scenes are just cogs in a collaborative machine. That is, until someone shines a light on a largely forgotten genius and suddenly the nature of the work is brought to the fore. Orry-Kelly was one of the greatest costume designers of all time, working on such classics as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Angels with Dirty Faces, Oklahoma! and Some Like it Hot.
Born in Kiama, a small town in New South Wales, Australia, Kelly soon set sail for New York City and ended up in the creative theatre scene in Greenwich Village. From there he got his first film job at Warner Brothers studio at the height of its power (it was turning out over 100 films a year, as opposed to the 10 it makes these days), and is now credited as the maker of “gowns” and costumes of over 300 films. Director/producer Gillian Armstrong has a host of Hollywood legends (including Angela Landsbury and Jane Fonda) to wax lyrical about his artistry and the glamour of ‘wild west’ early Hollywood.
But Armstrong has another story to tell: Orry Kelly had a secret that he took to his grave – the identity of his lover(s). Women He’s Undressed is also the story of the sexual liberalism of the golden years of Hollywood. And the likelihood that Kelly had a romantic relationship with infamously closeted Cary Grant. Hollywood is depicted simultaneously as a safe place for gay men, whilst being deeply conservative and religious. Yet Kelly manages to survive due to his close friendship with Jack Warner, and of course his genius dress design.
Armstrong chooses to tell this story as a docudrama with Darren Gilshenan as a fictionalised Kelly and Deborah Kennedy as his mother. And given the amount of time since his death (1964) it makes sense to imagine his motivations and dialogue. It also allows Kelly’s charm and flamboyance to come alive on screen.
|Darren Gilshenan as Orry Kelly|
Ultimately Women He’s Undressed is a celebration of the importance and nuance that costume design brings to narratives. Told through the extraordinary life of Orry Kelly, the ingredient that makes Hollywood so glamorous – the costumes, and in particular the gowns – is given the respect it deserves. Considering how much airtime and column inches are dedicated to which designers are worn by the A-Listers on the red carpet, you would think it would be about time that someone made a passionate plea to take more notice of the clothing within the films…