August 11, 2015

Orry-Kelly:The untold story Of A Hollywood legend - "Women He's Undressed" Review

Until the very talented Catherine Martin received her Academy Awards for costume design Orry-Kelly was the most awarded Australian in this category. 

Gillian Armstrong's lively, cleverly constructed documentary is a celebration of a life and an art. It's also a playful exploration of the creative achievements of an Australian who played an important role in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The film sets out to rescue from perceived obscurity the figure of three-time Oscar winner Orry George Kelly, known professionally as costume designer Orry-Kelly.

He was born in Kiama, NSW, in 1897. He saw a Dick Whittington pantomime at the age of seven, and was hooked on theatre, costume, performance and art. He had trained as an artist, something that was an important element of his work as a designer. He made his way to the US in 1922.
He wasn't cut out for the bank clerk job his mother hoped for, but he was never going to be a performer either. Appearing in the chorus at a New York theatre, he dropped a chorus girl and they both fell off the stage. He headed west, and began a career in Hollywood, starting out at Warner Bros.

Armstrong uses deftly chosen clips that demonstrate the range of his work: the increasingly absurd costumes that Bette Davis paraded in Mr Skeffington, the scandalous "red dress" she wore in Jezebel, a black and white film. He designed Ingrid Bergman's luminous, perfectly tailored costumes for Casablanca. 

His three Oscars were for An American In Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot.

Armstrong, as a director of dramas, has a strong appreciation of a costume designer's work, and Janet Patterson, the Australian designer on Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda, was nominated for an Oscar for her work on that film.

There isn't much archival material of Kelly, so Armstrong, with writer Katherine Thompson, has chosen to create and stage scenes from his life. There's a boyhood picture of him, taken in a photographer's studio, sitting in a dinghy with the word Kiama painted on it. This nautical image recurs, as actor Darren Gilshenan appears as Orry-Kelly, sitting in a dinghy, narrating and commenting on his own circumstances. Deborah Kennedy appears as his mother, Florence, first seen hanging out the washing, then sitting at a dressing table, on the cliffs near the lighthouse, an increasingly proud parent who ended all her letters with the same bizarre injunction about good health.

Alongside these good-natured, wryly comic scenes, there are more sober documentary figures, talking heads with different kinds of expertise. Some set the scene, talking about the studios of the time and the kinds of films they made. Others have more direct or vivid appreciation of the person and his work.
Some knew Orry-Kelly: veteran costume designer Ann Roth first worked with him on Oklahoma!, and she brings a bracing, acid tone to the film. Jane Fonda was in three films on which he worked: she's frank about her lack of regard for the movies themselves, but forthright about her warm feelings towards Orry-Kelly. 

Orry-Kelly was a gay man who made no attempts to hide his sexuality, even though there is plenty of testimony to the homophobia that ruled in Hollywood at the time. Another thread that runs through the story is the figure of an actor friend with whom Orry-Kelly lived for several years at the beginning of his career. At first, he is not named, gradually, it emerges that it was Cary Grant. The nature of their relationship remains elusive, a subject of gossip and conjecture that the film gets caught up in without ever really illuminating.
Armstrong has few images of the man himself, and photographs of him at work are held until the very last. It's the same with archival footage of him at the Academy Awards. The photographs bring a kind of intimacy and authenticity that might have been welcome earlier, but it's understandable why she placed them at the end, separate from the more stylised, performed elements of the narrative.

And there's another teasing moment she holds onto for much longer, until the credits roll, a sly promise that the Orry-Kelly story has more to reveal.

By Philipa Hawker
With thanks to the SMH

Above: Trailer from "An American in Paris".                                                                  
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