After a Fashion
by Thomas Delapa
In today’s dressed-down, flip-flops and uber-casual world, we seldom hear that “clothes make the man” anymore. But in classic Hollywood, fashion not only made the man—and the woman—but it made the movies too.
Where would The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale be without her ruby slippers, Joan Crawford sans her shoulder pads, Marilyn Monroe less (ahem) her skin-tight gowns or Cary Grant minus those impeccably tailored suits?
Like other low-profile collaborators, especially in our grandiose age of the director as auteur, motion-picture costume directors rarely grab the spotlight and even less the microphone. Classic film fans may be familiar with the celebrated career of Edith Head, but otherwise public knowledge of Hollywood’s leading costume designers is skimpy if not threadbare.
Despite its odd-fitting title, Women He’s Undressed means to makeover that legacy, taking the measure of Australian-born Orry-Kelly, who for three decades was one of Hollywood’s larger-than-life, A-list designers. His career included a long, tempestuous stint at the Warner Bros. studio, dressing such stars as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Olivia de Havilland, and was crowned by three Oscars for costume design, the last for Some Like It Hot in 1959.
An Australian-made documentary directed by the veteran Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, My Brilliant Career), Undressed won’t win ribbons for opulence, but it does stitch together the life and times of Orry-Kelly, born Orry George Kelly in New South Wales. Armstrong’s style clashes in spots, starting with the fanciful inclusion of her subject (Darren Gilshenan) addressing the camera while paddling in a rowboat. As an allegory of his roiling ups and downs it is, well, a bit out to sea.
As a gay man in Hollywood who rarely hid in the closet—at least among his friends— "Jack" Orry-Kelly was renowned for his talents, tart tongue and artistic tantrums. He could be difficult and demanding, but he managed to navigate the treacherous shores of the studio-system fiefdoms. While most found his boss Jack Warner a tight-fisted, crass (and macho) tyrant, Orry-Kelly formed an uneasy alliance, smoothed over by his long friendship with Warner’s wife, Ann. Undoubtedly his most famous work was with the notoriously prickly Bette Davis, including the brazen “red” ball dress her character flitted about in the 1938’s black-and-white Jezebel.
Except for that foundering rowboat, Undressed is outfitted in a conventional style, embroidered with interviews (among them, Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury), newsreel footage and photos. But it’s also spangled with fascinating tidbits about fashion design in Hollywood’s bygone Golden Age. Especially revealing are the sleight-of-hand tricks Orry-Kelly used to transform diva Davis (she of a large but “limp” bosom) that showed off the positive while cloaking the negative.
Glamour, illusion and fantasy were Orry-Kelly’s stock in trade, but his private life was bold as brass, despite begin hemmed in by a homophobic culture that threatened exposure for anyone—especially men—daring to tip-toe out of the closet. Armstrong and her writer Katherine Thomson sew the villain badge on Englishman Cary Grant (né Archibald Leach), who turned his back on Orry-Kelly once he became a matinee idol. While it is now well-known that Grant and Western star Randolph Scott lived together as roommates and more, the film speciously suggests that Grant’s subsequent marriages were strictly a cover for his homosexuality.
What’s most durable in Armstrong’s material is the flamboyant character of Orry-Kelly as both artist and survivor. Fired from Warners in 1944, he hit the bottle hard, successfully chased by rehab (“sanatoriums” back then) and surfacing in a wave of comebacks in the 1950s, culminating in the sparkling triumph of Some Like It Hot. Not only did he outfit Marilyn Monroe in those diaphanous, barely-there gowns that seared the screen, but he also dragged cross-dressing Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis into hilarious movie history.
Orry-Kelly was also a brash and oft-catty wit who was loath to keep his mouth zipped—he famously quipped that “Hell must be filled with beautiful women and no mirrors.” In old Hollywood’s bright firmament, you can still see Orry-Kelly’s twinkling reflection in the timelessly elegant fashions he created.