Having multiple Oscars to your name and still not being “famous” is surely a fate that befalls many people who work behind-the-scenes on films. As Women He’s Undressed, the new documentary directed by Australian film luminary Gillian Armstrong, reveals, you can be still revered without being a household name.
The subject of the film is Orry-Kelly, three-time Oscar winner for excellence in costume design. He was born Orry George Kelly 1898 in the little seaside town of Kiama, just south of Wollongong, which is known for its iconic blowhole.
Orry-Kelly’s humble origins are constantly referred to in this film. Images of the blowhole are used as a stand-in for his emotions at key moments, scenes that feature Deborah Kennedy playing his mother reading letters from him near the town’s iconic lighthouse, and narration from Kelly himself (played by Darren Gilshenen) who spends most of the film in a little red boat against projected backdrops that mirror his actual story.
That the film is so reflexive and often abstract provides something very tangible to latch onto that an endless parade of talking heads and archival footage would simply not be able to do. The talking heads featured however, are all very magnetic in their on-screen presence. The likes of Catherine Martin, Leonard Maltin and Jane Fonda are featured. Those who knew Kelly personally are the most fascinating, particularly the saucy Ann Roth who worked under him.
The mixture of film academics and the more personal narrators creates an interesting pull between what went on behind the closed doors of Hollywood, and the cleverly crafted public perception of the movies. Early in the film, after relocating to New York (following some time in Sydney) Kelly was in a relationship with a young man named Archie Leach, who later became Hollywood film star Cary Grant.
Kelly, who was openly gay and refused to hide it, is shown in stark contrast to many other gay men in Hollywood who entered into marriages of convenience to keep their reputations intact. As such, there is an undercurrent of sadness to Kelly’s story, juxtaposed with the romance and glamour of the breathtaking costumes and paintings that he produced throughout his life.
Like the best documentaries, Women He’s Undressed is not against wandering off on short tangents, or telling brief, interesting stories not directly related to the central subject, but it is constructed to well that it never seems messy or unfocused. It is completely engaging for its entire length.
Women He's Undressed is a remarkable documentary. It has clearly been researched with care, and made by a tight-knit and sympathetic team who knew the best way to tell the remarkable story of Orry-Kelly. Everything, from the music to the cinematography to the structure make for a fascinating viewing experience that will make you desperately want to seek out these movies and see Kelly’s garments in action.
Stick around after the credits start to roll, too, because there is a very nice surprise waiting.