The glamourous life of Orry-Kelly, Australian costume designer to the stars during Hollywood’s golden age.

3.5

Revered Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong has unearthed a fascinating story with her profile of Orry-Kelly (Orry George Kelly), costume designer to the stars during Hollywood’s golden age. Australians love to claim a celebrity as their own, so it’s intriguing that Kelly’s story has not been told before now.

A boy from Kiama, Kelly made the move first to New York and then Los Angeles, trying his hand at acting before settling on costume design and finding a home with Warner Bros. He dressed everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, earning three Oscars in the process.

The film is worth it for the archival footage of gorgeous gowns alone, but Armstrong makes it clear that Kelly’s talent was not just for glitz. His long partnership with Bette Davis is a case in point – Kelly worked with Davis to hold back the studio’s attempts to blandly glamourise her. The outfits he designed both tailored to her body shape and said something about her characters.   

There are several interviews with people who worked with Kelly including Jane Fonda and Ann Roth. Roth worked as an assistant to Kelly and is now herself an Oscar-winning costume designer. The interviews are lacking a coherent visual style to match the sumptuous historical film clips. Instead, a visual through-line is provided by the character of Orry-Kelly himself.

Darren Gilshenan plays Kelly, channelling his apparent wit in monologues delivered both in voice over and from a sparsely designed set. Using the inspiration of a childhood photograph of Kelly in a rowing boat, the boat becomes a motif throughout the film that we revisit at certain junctures in his life. Kelly’s character is introduced early when there’s a lot going on – interviews, clips, actors voicing quotes from famous stars – so it takes some warming up to. But Gilshenan finds his stride as Kelly, supported with an excellent performance from Deborah Kennedy who plays Kelly’s mother. She provides the link back to Australia, pegging washing on the line and speaking matter-of-factly to the camera about her son. 

We see no images of the real Kelly throughout the film, presumably to maintain the sense of Gilshenan as the character. This can at times be frustrating, in particular when we see the announcement of his Oscars win and the scene cuts before he takes the stage. Finally, at the end, there is a rolling parade of stills and clips of the man himself, satiating our curiosity. Nonetheless, introducing the images earlier in the film is unlikely to have detracted from the character. 

Kelly’s life as a gay man in conservative Hollywood is another theme throughout. His early relationship with English actor Archie Leach (later to become Cary Grant) is explored - and given Grant’s camp have long strenuously denied his homosexuality, suggestions in the film that Grant may have blocked publication of Kelly’s memoir add a touch of Hollywood intrigue. The apparently lost memoir was a tantalising prize encouraging Armstrong and her team to dig further, and its eventual discovery and recent publication provides a neat tie-in to secure Orry-Kelly’s legacy as a great Australian craftsman.

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