“Women He’s Undressed”
Orry-Kelly, Costume Designer
“Women He’s Undressed” is Gillian Armstrong’s documentary about three-time Academy Award Winning Costume Designer, Australian born Orry-Kelly. A very young Orry George Kelly left Australia for the US in the 1920’s to find fame and fortune on Broadway. His career as a chorus boy did not last and after having dropped too many female dancers on stage, he decided it was time to retire. He got a job painting murals in a nightclub and this led to him designing costumes on Broadway. His boyfriend,
Archie Leech wasn’t having much luck as an actor and was trying to get cast based upon his good looks. In the 30s, Kelly moved to Hollywood and eventually became the head costume designer at Warner Studios where he stayed until 1944 having been expected to work on as many as 50 movies each year. The stars loved and he gathered raves in his work from the actresses he created costumes for.
At about the same time, his boyfriend also found some success now as Hollywood took to his handsome good looks and he changed his name to Cary Grant, but the two men soon split and went their separate ways. Orry-Kelly added the hyphen to his name to make himself sounded more glamorous and grand and he was very open about his sexuality and was in fact quite brazen about it, whereas Grant lived ‘sort of’ in the closet. He lived with actor Randolph Scott for a decade and even when the studios made Grant marry (for the first of three times) he simply moved his bride into the house he shared with Scott.
What makes this documentary unique is that it is as much about the man as it is about his career. We see Orry-Kelly as a man with a zest for life. After leaving Warner, he did some of his best work as he worked at Universal, RKO, 20th Century Fox, and MGM studios. He won three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design—“An American in Paris:, “Les Girls” and “Some Like It Hot” and was nominated for a fourth for “Gypsy”. Many of the movies (285 of them)54 that he designed costumes for went on to become classics of American cinema. He designed for all the great actresses of the day, including Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Dolores del Río, Ava Gardner, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyck, and Merle Oberon and he created the clothing for two actors, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their cross-dressing scenes. While he loved excess in his personal life, his costumes were filled with color but he did not use ruffles or frills. For him, less was more.
The film has interviews with fashion icons Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, June Dally-Watkins , costume designers Catherine Martin, Ann Roth, Kym Barrett, Michael Wilkinson, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Hollywood identities and historians including director/producer Eric Sherman, Hollywood fixer Scotty Bowers, Leonard Maltin, David Chierichetti, Marc Eliot, William J Mann, Jean Mathison, Larry McQueen and Barbara Warner Howard (daughter of Ann & Jack Warner).
In “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) Orrie-Kelly worked with Cary Grant for the first time. The two men had shared an intimate relationship some years earlier lasting 9 years. The details of this relationship forms a large part of the narrative. We get a keen sense of the history of the times and the Studio’s objectives to create the beautiful American Dream but that dream clearly did not include homosexuality.
We see a bit about his relationships with Jack and Ann Warner, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and hear from a huge range of talents including June Dally-Watkins, Ann Roth, director Eric Sherman and others. The film is filled with energy, passion and a keen sense of this non-conformist rebel and artist, who lived his life according to his own code of integrity.
Director Armstrong takes the concept of Kelly’s identity a step further by having part of the documentary made up of actors playing Kelly, his family and famous Hollywood friends, reading notes and book excerpts throughout.
Darren Gilshenan plays Kelly who’s presented as putting on a one-man show of sorts, rowing a rowboat in the afterlife. Since Kelly isn’t actually seen in photos or footage until the final reels, Gilshenan becomes synonymous with the role, making Kelly his own.
Several famous cases of openly gay actors are mentioned, particularly silent star William Haines who, when talkies took over, was forced out of Hollywood for refusing to date women. Other costume designers, like the famous Adrian, married women and lived false lives of domesticity. Kelly refused to date, and because he was so beloved the studios allowed him to be who he was, so long as he didn’t flaunt it. With Kelly’s personal life the film gets particularly interesting.