Sunday, August 7, 2016

DVD Review | Women He's Undressed

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. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Film Review | Money Monster

Write it off
by Thomas Delapa

Looking for a hot insider tip on Money Monster?

Then save your eight bucks. This George Clooney/Julia Roberts Wall Street suspense satire is flat, warmed-over road kill.

While two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Jodie Foster uneasily returns to the director’s chair for her fourth feature, she strands her under-performing stars in what adds up (or down) to a low-caliber shotgun merger between Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The China Syndrome. Unless Foster has her own hedge fund, she shouldn’t look for career dividends any time soon.

Nobody yells “Attica! Attica!” or “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” out the window, but Foster’s scriptwriters borrow from so many topical 1970s dramas that they must be paying a monster interest rate. For starters, he-e-e-re’s Lee Gates (Clooney) the slick, smarmy host of a cable-TV financials show, a man so vacuously fatuous that you know he’s a sure bet for a coast-to-coast comeuppance. Next up is uninvited surprise guest Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a Queens palooka who’s, yes, mad as hell at the damn rich since he lost his life savings on one of Gates’ bum stock tips. Standing tall, very tall, behind them is Roberts’ Patty Fenn, the show’s sharp, super-cool, alpha-female producer and Foster’s moral conscience in the vast wasteland of 24-7 tabloid TV.

Reunited from their cash-cow Ocean’s Eleven reboots, Clooney and Roberts slowly sink carrying the star ballast, though they can hardly shoulder all the blame. If Clooney once had promise as a cheeky Hollywood throwback to the likes of Clark Gable, he’s now so annoyingly mannered (cocking his head for every emphatic line), that by now his performances are all reruns. If Foster got a bum tip from her agent before buying into this project, she doesn’t do her leads any favors either, inflating the story with overwrought acting and a manic shooting style that papers over the yawning holes in the story’s junk-bond rated logic.

The net result is a cheap, remote-controlled financial thriller that chews up and spits out every populist cliché this side of Oliver Stone and Bernie Sanders. Not a few minutes into Gates’ “Money Monster” daily show, Budwell crashes the set, armed with handgun, made-for-TV hysteria, and an explosive vest designed with the now-cowering host in mind. With the whole world watching—absurdly, even in distant Iceland and Korea—Budwell shouts his million-dollar hostage demands, profanely punctuated with slogans (“The system is rigged!”) that could be coming from both the left and right in today’s angry, un-moneyed U.S. electorate.

Foster is too busy tossing mud and her camera around to seriously ask why (or even if) a blue-collar bud like Budwell would foolishly blow everything he has on a stock-market whim. Those are the sort of questions she simply runs over, content to feed us clichéd lines like those printed on Gates’ cue cards or whispered in his earpiece by his all-knowing, all-seeing producer. No, it’s enough for us to get that Gates is a boorish show-biz charlatan and behind him lurks an even bigger, villainous one—the uber-greedy CEO (Dominic West) of a shadowy finance company that suspiciously lost $800 million in stock value overnight. This guy isn’t just a capitalist pig but a chauvinist one to boot, treating his leggy staffer and mistress (Caitriona Balfe) with oily “That’s my girl” patriarchal condescension.

Foster wears her gender politics on her rolled-up left sleeve, bluntly separating not the men from the boys, but her sharp, ultra-capable females from their obvious lessers—their clueless, often-monstrous male counterparts. Not only does Roberts serve as Foster’s quietly heroic center, she’s the real power behind Gates’ chintzy Dow Jones throne, feeding him lines and keeping him and everyone else cool under crisis pressure. Her partner in distaff kickass-ness is that model-thin staffer, who instantly evolves from corporate mouthpiece and concubine into crusading detective faster you can say Erin Brockovich, digging up the dirt on her boss’ shady globe-trotting missions in his private jet. Back at the studio, the New York City SWAT cops called to the scene recklessly reach for their guns and insults first; it’s no surprise the only exception is a lowly (black) policewoman whom Foster calls to duty only to blow the whistle on her trigger-happy blue crew.

Hollywood insiders might think that with Foster, Clooney & Roberts in charge, Money Monster would be too big to fail. But that’s what they said about Enron, AIG , Lehman Brothers and Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger.

In other words, don’t bet on a box-office bail-out. My money is on audiences bailing out.