There’s a fantastically surreal moment early on in Women He’s Undressed, a new documentary from celebrated filmmaker Gillian Armstrong that attempts to unravel why so few Australians know the name of Orry-Kelly, the three-time Oscar-winning costume designer extraordinaire responsible for such sartorial excellence as worn by Ingrid Bergman in in Casablanca, Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and Bette Davis in Jezebel.
Asked by Armstrong why she thinks Orry-Kelly has disappeared from the cultural consciousness, lauded American costume designer Ann Roth, who scored her own Oscar for her work on The English Patient and began her career as one of his assistants, retorts with an almost barbed incredulity, “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is?”
Orry-Kelly is rightfully recognised as a legend of the Golden Age of cinema in the U.S., so Armstrong was determined to solve the mystery of his disappearing act down under. “When I read his credits I’m like, ‘What? An Australian did Some Like It Hot and Casablanca? [Aunty] Mame? And none of us know him?”
When Armstrong’s producer Damien Parer stumbled across Orry-Kelly’s name while researching Australians with Academy Awards, at that stage Catherine Martin was yet to surpass his hat trick, which she would go on to do in 2013, nabbing the statuette for her sumptuous costume work in The Great Gatsby and sharing a fourth with Beverley Dunn for that film’s production design.
Martin and her husband Baz were the only Australians Armstrong uncovered who recognised Orry-Kelly’s genius. “After Strictly Ballroom they were asked to edit an issue of Vogue Australia and they did a story on Orry,” Armstrong says. “Catherine’s a huge fan.”
The Academy did not introduce a costume category until 1949, by which stage the vast majority of Orry-Kelly’s over 300 credits had been released, including Some Like It Hot, on whichTony Curtis and Jack Lemon lobbied the studio to allow him to handle their dresses as well as Monroe’s.
“If they’d had an Oscar for costume design before 1949, he definitely would have outdone Catherine,” Armstrong bets. “All those early films he did with Bette, they would have been ringing it in. That was bad luck.”
The self-proclaimed “boy from the bush,” born Jack, left the tiny beachside township of Kiama, 120km south of Sydney, for the bright lights of Hollywood via stints in Woolloomooloo’s houses of ill repute and then the speakeasies of New York, where he pursued an acting career that segued into set building before settling on costumes.
As his star continued to shine, Orry-Kelly regularly returned to Australia to visit his mother and would be met with adulation by the local press. “He really was ‘Our Orry, the famous costume designer,’ all through the '30s and '40s,” Armstrong says. “They interviewed him like you would Hugh Jackman now, ‘tell us what it’s like to work with Bette Davis.’”
When his mother died in the late 40s, Orry-Kelly stayed Stateside. “If you don’t come back and do Australian press, you’re gone,” Armstrong suggests, pointing to reporting on his death in 1964. “There’s like a two-line obituary in Australia, but in America there was a huge article in Variety, in The Hollywood Reporter and both the New York Times and the LA Times.”
A struggle with alcoholism, exacerbated by his conscription at 46 into the US army during WWII, may have taken the shine off his later years – he was also fired from WB for punching out an executive - but Armstrong notes that in the dying days of his career, the curtain was coming down on the end of an era.
“At the end of the '60s, suddenly there was Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy,” Armstrong says. “Everything was gritty, with ripped blue denim and handheld cameras. The Golden Age was gone and dead, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwick were passé.”
Embarking on a detective-like mission to uncover every detail of Orry-Kelly’s life, Armstrong and her team poured over letters, interviews and biographies from contemporaries including Davis, with whom he forged an enduring relationship. She considered him her right arm at Warner Bros.
“With Orry there was a great deal of input into the character, and that’s what Bette really liked about him, and why they became a team,” Armstrong says. “They had to fight against the studio, because they always wanted to make her look glamorous in inch-thick makeup and bleach her hair like Jean Harlow.
“Sometimes people come into costume design from fashion and it’s just about the frock, but Orry was like, ‘what are we saying about this character and how do their clothes express who they are?’ The two of them together were way ahead of their time. They were brave, and that was their bond.”
Orry-Kelly also forged a firm friendship with a young English actor named Archie Leach as the penniless pair made their way, first in New York and then in LA. Leach would go on to become one of Hollywood’s most memorable leading men, changing his name to Cary Grant. Women He’s Undressed addresses persistent whispers the pair were once a couple.
“When I was auditioning actors to play Orry, they’d all gone online and the first thing they’d find are the rumours about him being with Cary Grant,” Armstrong says. “They’re denied by Cary’s family and he never mentioned Orry ever in any interviews about his life, other than once saying he ran a speakeasy. We went out there to find out the truth.”
Whatever the reality, Grant cut Orry-Kelly out of his life, and the burden of their lost friendship was a heavy one for the designer. “It’s also about friendship and loyalty,” Armstrong says. “They started out together, helping each other in their careers. I mean, Orry certainly made it, but there’s Cary the superstar and he just cut him. I think that was more hurtful than anything.”
Darren Gilshenan plays Orry-Kelly in sharply witty dramatic monologues penned by Armstrong’s collaborator Katherine Thomson. These scenes are threaded with incredible archival footage, talking heads that include a Jane Fonda and fellow designers Colleen Atwood and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who curated ACMI and the V&A’s blockbuster Hollywood Costume, plusa dream-like send-off for Orry-Kelly; a theatrical take on Viking sea burials.
“This man deserves to be known in his own country,” Armstrong says, hoping Women He’s Undressed and an up-coming book will help to restore Orry-Kelly’s legacy. “The original premise was simple, ‘how did this person from nowhere make it in Hollywood?’ but we found out so much more.”
Women He’s Undressed is screening at the Sydney Film Festival before moving to Melbourne for the gala re-opening of Art Deco picture palace The Astor on June 25. It will screen in cinemas nationally from July 16.
See all coverage of the 2015 Sydney Film Festival