A great documentary is like an archeological dig, where we in the audience don’t have to do anything but watch. Documentary filmmakers go and dig up remarkable stories with extraordinary characters, and then offer up to us as a thrilling and unexpected piece of entertainment. What makes acclaimed director Gillian Armstrong’s documentary ‘Women He’s Undressed’ that little bit more special though is the figure at the centre of it - a triple Oscar-winning costume designer responsible for some of the greatest work of the golden age of cinema... who also happened to be Australian. Not many people in his home country have ever heard of Orry-Kelly, but thanks to Armstrong’s documentary that hopefully won’t be the case for much longer.
Mixing interviews, archival footage and wonderfully clever recreation, ‘Women He’s Undressed’ charts the life and career of Orry George Kelly (played in dramatisations by Darren Gilshenan), who went from a modest life in Kiama at the turn of the century to one of the most influential costume designers in Hollywood history. His work can be seen in ‘Casablanca’, ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Oklahoma’, and he personally oversaw the costumes of powerhouses like Bette Davis. His list of credits are staggering, and yet he remains a relative unknown to people back home. What also remained unknown about him was his personal life. Orry-Kelly was one of the few openly gay men in early Hollywood, but while he never hid his sexuality, he was forced to keep secret one of the most significant relationships of his life.
'WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED' TRAILER
I have to admit, I’d never heard of him, even though I’d seen so much of his work. What Armstrong and screenwriter Katherine Thomson have done is craft a documentary that not only gives us a portrait of Orry-Kelly in a dynamic and entertaining fashion, but also a snapshot of Hollywood, its sexual politics and the role of the costume designer at the time. Because of the scope of his influence, his story connects to many other personal histories of Hollywood, many of which come as genuine revelations in the film. I could tell you more, but they’re far too juicy and I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprises. With this rich material at her disposal, Armstrong lets her film unfold like a mystery, with Gilshenan’s deliciously witty performance as Orry-Kelly as our guide.
Armstrong employs an almost theatrical language when using Orry-Kelly’s own words, Gilshenan leaping through abstract dream landscapes that bolster the recollections rather than hinder them. These sequences make for a refreshing change in documentary storytelling, and work beautifully with the vivid recollections in the interviews and the old-Hollywood glamour of the mountain of film clips. The list of interviewees is delectable, from Hollywood legends like Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury, acclaimed costume designers like Ann Roth, Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Catherine Martin, and film historians like Leonard Martin. With their help, we’re given a total understanding of how important Orry-Kelly’s work and legacy are, and why he deserves to be remembered.
His work can be seen in ‘Casablanca’, ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Oklahoma’, and he personally oversaw the costumes of powerhouses like Bette Davis.
For lovers of cinema (and golden age Hollywood in particular), ‘Women He’s Undressed’ is an indulgent joy. One minute you’re revelling in clips and stories from your favourite classic films and stars, and the next gasping at revelation after revelation, whether that’s to do with a secret life of a famous star or the realisation of Orry-Kelly’s enormous contribution to his craft and to cinema. Gillian Armstrong has sewn together a remarkable portrait of this important Australian, unknown and unappreciated in his home country. ‘Women He’s Undressed’ has so many important things to say - about the craft of cinema, about the power of being yourself, about sexual politics both then and today - and it says them with clarity and unbounded energy. This is the most wonderful of documentaries, the kind that you don’t just leave feeling better informed, but with a spring in your step.