“Women He’s Undressed” is a lively and revealing documentary — but not in the way the salacious title might suggest. A lot more than clothing is probed, fingered and illuminated in this stylish look at the brilliant career of three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Orry George Kelly, known professionally as Orry-Kelly.
Director Gillian Armstrong (“My Brilliant Career,” “Charlotte Grey”) smartly trains her focus on several key areas of intriguing Hollywood history: the restrictive Hayes Code, closeted homosexuality among Hollywood icons, and the overbearing studio system. Of course, it also spotlights the sartorial artistry of Orry-Kelly, through the knowing commentary of renowned costume designers like Colleen Atwood, Ann Roth, Catherine Martin and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, as well as film historian and critic Leonard Maltin and acting legends Angela Lansbury and Jane Fonda.
Trained as an artist, the Australian-born fashionisto dressed such stars as Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe for big-screen success, and endured the slings and arrows of Hollywood fortune. The golden age of Hollywood offers a feast of juicy material and Armstrong digs in with gusto.
The director takes a creative approach that keeps “Women He’s Undressed” from feeling like a standard talking-heads-and-archival-footage documentary, and this risky move mostly works. In a hybrid of narrative and non-fiction, Armstrong weaves in actors and plops them into fantasy segments based on passages from the costume designer’s letters and eponymous memoir. Darren Gilshenan, as Orry-Kelly, is shown musing rakishly about his life while sitting in a small rowboat, in scenes that feel more theatrical than cinematic, while his mother Florence (Deborah Kennedy) speaks to her son halfway around the world as she hangs the washing to dry.
It’s a risky choice to blend this kind of fictional staginess, which is often wryly funny, with scenes from the films he worked on, as well as archival footage, expert commentary and stock photos. Overall, it works. Combining so many disparate strands — historical, contextual, personal and even gossipy — with the performative could have felt disjointed. But in Armstrong’s capable hands, it all comes together fairly seamlessly, providing a compelling portrait of Kelly’s noteworthy career.
Drawing from his long-lost memoir (found posthumously at a relative’s house), the film delves as much into his relationship with Cary Grant — particularly when he was still Archibald Leach in the early days of his career — as it does into Kelly’s lifelong fascination with clothing. Top costume designers and academics enthusiastically deconstruct his glamorous, eye-popping designs and how they highlighted the actresses’ assets.
The most memorable comments comes from Fonda, whom he dressed on “Sunday in New York” and “The Chapman Report,” early in her film career. Fonda’s charmingly outspoken reaction to his sexy costumes for Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot” is a hilarious highlight.
Armstrong’s cleverly constructed film puts this prodigiously talented costume designer’s life in a wider Hollywood context by looking at the nature of the movie industry from the 1930s to the early ’60s, focusing on the ethos and temperaments of studio moguls, as well as the prevailing conservative attitudes toward sex. Orry-Kelly was a gay man who didn’t hide his sexuality, despite Hollywood’s pervasive homophobia. But his pal and roommate Grant/Leach took a different tack, marrying various women over the years. The nature of their relationship remains murky. It’s easy to speculate that Armstrong’s reticence has at least something to do with Grant’s legacy, but at times it can feel more like innuendo than non-fiction.
Born in 1897, and reared in the small coastal Australian town of Kiama, Orry-Kelly moved to New York at 25 where he briefly appeared in theatrical choruses, and then went to work designing costumes. He moved west a few years later and became chief costume designer at Warner Bros. He later worked at Universal, MGM and Fox.
During his three-decade career Orry-Kelly was responsible for the costumes on a whopping 282 movies. He won Oscars for the clothing designs in “Les Girls,” “An American in Paris,” and “Some Like it Hot.” He also designed the iconic tailored wardrobe of Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.”
But there’s plenty of frock-free fodder in this cinematic celebration. Not long after his arrival in Los Angeles, Orry-Kelly was ensconced in a classic Hollywood mansion and went to all the smart parties. But his career floundered later as he struggled with alcoholism and scrounged for work, even as he maintained a close friendship with a movie mogul’s wife.
Armstrong’s film is lively and thought-provoking, never overly reverential. She celebrates the life of this artful Aussie while also providing viewers with an entertaining historical portrait of the milieu in which he worked.
Briskly paced, historically informative and playfully revelatory, “Women’s He’s Undressed” is never buttoned down, even if Armstrong doesn’t exactly let it all hang out, either.