The ACMI is helping Australians rediscover our most successful Oscar winner, costume designer Orry-Kelly.
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7 Jun 2013 - 12:47 PM  UPDATED 7 Jun 2013 - 12:47 PM

It's a little known fact that Australia's most successful Oscar winner was the flamboyant gay costume designer Orry-Kelly, who won three Academy Awards for his work in Hollywood during the 1950s for films as famous and fabulous as An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like it Hot (1959). He was nominated for a fourth for Gypsy (1962; pictured) before his untimely death from liver cancer – yes, he drank.

A prolific and versatile designer who dressed big stars like Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, and the one-time lover and long-time friend of Cary Grant, Orry-Kelly designed costumes for more than 280 films during the height of the studio era, and was a household name in the way that legendary designers Adrian, Travis Banton and Edith Head were household names and gossip magazine fodder. Now, in a perfect storm of rediscovery, Orry-Kelly and his work are the subject of an upcoming documentary project to be directed by Gillian Armstrong, as well being part of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) Hollywood Costume exhibition showing in Melbourne, together with a program of classic films featuring his costumes.

ACMI programmer James Nolen, himself a snappy dresser and fashion obsessive, says he first came across mention of Orry-Kelly about five years ago. “I was leafing through this book on costume design in Hollywood and there were two pages devoted to this guy with a funny name, and it said he was Australian!” exclaims Nolen. “Then I started coming across all these people who have carried a torch for him over the years, and it just burned away in the back of my brain. When the costume exhibition was planned [curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis] – and included the slinky white dress worn by Marilyn in Some Like it Hot – it seemed a perfect opportunity to run a program of films in our regular Australian Perspectives strand. So we've got four films with Orry-Kelly costumes: Les Girls (1957), Auntie Mame (1958), Some Like it Hot and Gypsy. He was just too juicy a subject to tick off with one film. Everybody's just fascinated once they start to learn a little bit more about Orry-Kelly's story.”

The filmmakers behind the feature documentary project about Orry-Kelly – producer Damian Parer, director Gillian Armstrong and screenwriter Katherine Thomson – are certainly hoping that investors will be as fascinated as they are. The documentary, still in development but with Umbrella Australia attached as distributor, will be called Women He's Undressed, a reference to Orry-Kelly's own unpublished autobiography, Women I've Undressed. The manuscript is apparently languishing in a library in California, awaiting a keen researcher to fossick it out.

But who was Orry-Kelly? Speaking on a panel at ACMI recently after a screening of Les Girls, screenwriter Katherine Thomson says the story begins like this: “During the 1920s there was a guy from Kiama on the coast of NSW and he could paint a bit. He went to live in New York in his early '20s and fell in love with a young 17-year-old vaudeville guy, Archie Leach from Britain, and they lived together. The vaudevillian didn't have a lot of success; he walked around on his stilts in Times Square spruiking shows. Orry-Kelly designed theatre shows and bits and pieces, but a lot of the time he and Archie Leach were running speakeasies, or Orry-Kelly was designing bathrooms on the Upper East Side for rich women. We get to the '30s in the time of the depression and Orry-Kelly goes to Hollywood and works on costumes for the movies, and Archie Leach follows not far behind. George Orry Kelly becomes Orry-Kelly and Archie Leach becomes Cary Grant. That's the hook for us. In the '30s alone, he did 53 films a year. That's one a week. No wonder he drank!”

Katherine Thomson and Gillian Armstrong's last feature documentary together was the stylish and original Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst, and this next project promises to bring together a similar mix of interviews, re-enactments and beautiful imagery. The clothes alone – in the clips from Hollywood classics – will be worth the price of a ticket. Think of Ingrid Bergman's modest but luminous wardrobe in Casablanca; Humphrey Bogart's now iconic detective style in The Maltese Falcon (1941); or Bette Davis's stunning wardrobe disasters in Jezebel (1938).

Contemporary Australian costume designer Anna Borghesi is a great admirer of Orry-Kelly's work and cites him as an inspiration. “His mastery was that he could do enormous sprawling musicals with casts of thousands, but he could also do really intimate and compact work,” Borghesi says. “The characters are always beautifully portrayed through their costuming and their clothing completely informs you about who they are and what their visual journey is throughout a film – with very slight changes and little hooks for you see that. The art of costuming is a really precise art, and the less people notice the costuming, the better for the whole film. Orry-Kelly's work is a huge part of the film, but it's completely cohesive. You say 'what a great story' and you've been able to stay in the story because the visuals are so much a part of it because the storytelling and the visual psychology that's created by the costuming can't be separated in a good film.”

As a designer, Orry-Kelly's brilliance is preserved on screen. As a person, he's set to be discovered anew. As Thomson says, “Above all, he was very funny and witty. He was a gay guy in Hollywood and he didn't pretend – at a time when a lot them married to keep the fan magazines happy. That says something to me. He didn't respect authority – he was very Australian in that way – and he was a mean drunk. But I've fallen in love with him.”

For screening dates on Orry-Kelly's films as part of Australian Perspectives at ACMI, click here. The Hollywood Costume Exhibition is currently on show at ACMI in Melbourne until 18 August.

All images courtesy: Hollywood Classics UK All at 300dpi.