Chances are if you’re a fan of classic Hollywood films, you’ve seen the work of designer Orry-Kelly. From Casablanca and Jezebel, to Oklahoma and Gypsy, Kelly was known for his amazing eye and using costuming to add depth to the story of the film. He was also openly homosexual during a time where even the slightest rumors could get you removed from a Hollywood studio job. In the new film from director Gillian Armstrong, Women He’s Undressed, Kelly’s life is told from his childhood in Australia to his death in Hollywood. Famous actors and actresses, current film costume designers, and fashion historians discuss the importance of Orry-Kelly’s art and his colorful past.
Kelly’s memoir, Women I’ve Undressed, was found hidden in a pillow case after his death. According to the documentary, many people knew he was working on it in life, but one particular person was terrified it might ever be published. That man was none other than Cary Grant. According to the documentary and the memoir, and confirmed with many of the interviews, Grant and Kelly were lovers in Australia and New York, but after coming to California, Grant split and lived his life as a straight man.
The interviews are what truly make the film. Jane Fonda discusses Kelly’s great care in helping her step outside of her father’s (Henry Fonda’s) shadow. Angela Lansbury discusses Kelly’s abilities to make an outfit pop, while using colorful descriptions about her own body parts. These interviews with actresses and historians weave in and out of colorful reenactments by a performer as Kelly, and one as his mother. Gillian Armstrong balances the two together, so neither technique is too overwhelming.
The film also uses footage from famous black and white films, moving into full color productions as the documentary advances. Kelly’s work in Casablanca is discussed, as were the issues in filming. His personal life and arguments with Jack Warner are right there alongside his work partnership and friendship with Bette Davis. Davis was one of his strongest partnerships and the two helped build their careers and legends side-by-side during films like Jezebel and Now, Voyager. He is also responsible for the barely-there Marilyn Monroe costumes in Some Like it Hot.
I went into Women He’s Undressed with no knowledge of Orry-Kelly and left feeling like I’d spent an hour and a half hearing fantastic tales of an old family friend. After the film, I’ve also delved into the memoir itself; I’ve got to say it is one heck of a read. Orry-Kelly was a fascinating man and his partnerships helped to create some of the strongest and best-dressed women in Hollywood. This film will give you new respect for leading ladies and make you want to take out your copy of Casablanca to inspect the fine and subtle details of Kelly’s work.
Women He’s Undressed comes to DVD and VOD on August 9th. His memoir Women I’ve Undressed is available in audio book format in the US, or via used Australian copies if you are industrious enough to find it.
The film will also be available theatrically on July 29th in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood.