Director Gillian Armstrong discusses Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly and her gorgeous documentary about his life and craft — with a side of Cary Grant and Betty Davis.
Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly could transform actresses’ bodies, even notoriously ‘difficult’ figures, with his clothes. Bette Davis’s large, droopy breasts posed a particular challenge, since she refused to wear underwire bras — believing they caused cancer. Though Orry-Kelly won three Oscars and designed for countless classic films, including Jezebel, Casablanca, Gypsy, and An American in Paris, he had remained a virtual unknown outside the circles of professionals in his field. Gillian Armstrong’s highly entertaining documentary Women He’s Undressed, which had its international premiere at TIFF, brings Orry-Kelly’s story to the masses, while also illuminating the art and magic of costume design.
Armstrong and her editors had to watch endless footage of Bette Davis to find the right clips to illustrate Orry-Kelly’s genius. She asked her assistant editor, “Can you go through all of Bette Davis’s films from the early ‘30s and try to find some shots where her breasts are moving around under her clothes? Can you find some shots of Bette in the later films where there might be like a pocket handkerchief or something used for distraction above her breast?” Armstrong noted that after screening the film for audiences, “A lot of people have said that after that [part of the film], any time [Davis] came on the screen, all they could do was look at her breasts.”
[quote type=center]A lot of people have said that after that [part of the film], any time [Davis] came on the screen, all they could do was look at her breasts.[/quote]
Women He’s Undressed gives us a glimpse of the many other actresses and actors whom Orry-Kelly transformed. He gave the petite and matchstick-like Natalie Wood height and curves by “putting the beading on the side” in Gypsy. He designed Marilyn Monroe’s barely-there dresses in Some Like It Hot, which mysteriously got past the censors. After much campaigning by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, he designed their dresses for the film, too: he made them look like rather homely women instead of men in drag. He even taught a young Cary Grant how to wear his signature suits.
Orry-Kelly’s costume design was so influential that it continues to reverberate in films today. When Armstrong interviewed costume designer Colleen Atwood about Orry-Kelly’s work in Irma La Douce, Armstrong recalls, “[Atwood] suddenly realized, ‘You know what? I completely forgot that Shirley MacLaine had this dress with the zips. I think I subliminally got my whole inspiration for Edward Scissorhands from Irma La Douce — and the colour scheme, ‘because I had like black with pastels and everything’”.
Producer Damian Parer initially stumbled upon Orry-Kelly’s story by chance. Armstrong recalls that Parer had “an interest in Australians who’d won Oscars. He was googling and saw this list, and he saw, at that time, Orry-Kelly with three Oscars was the most awarded Australian of all time, and he thought, ‘Who is this guy? I’ve never heard of him.’ So he got obsessed and read about all the amazing films — because no one in Australia remembered him anymore.”
A mutual friend connected Parer with Armstrong, whose previous documentary had explored the life and craft of another quirky subject, Florence Broadhurst. Armstrong elaborated that the film was not only about Broadhurst’s life story, as a “wallpaper designer who was sort of this crazy con artist who got murdered, but it was also about this amazing wallpaper she’d designed in the later ‘60s early ‘70s.” Armstrong’s love of costume design and her instant fascination with Orry-Kelly’s life story made her the perfect match for the project. Armstrong recalled, “The more we got into [our research on Orry-Kelly], the more we realized what a great story his life was. We didn’t realize about all the ups and downs, and his relationship with Cary Grant.”
[quote type = center]There were these really funny quips — [Orry] had this very self-deprecating humour — in his interviews.[/quote]
“We didn’t start off with a concept about how to tell the story,” explained Armstrong. “We thought, first of all, we have to know what the story is and who he was, who his friends were, what the context of his life was. What was Hollywood like at the time? Who were the other costume designers? What was he like compared to them?” Throughout their two years of intensive research, they discovered that “there were these really funny quips — [Orry] had this very self-deprecating humour — in his interviews. He’d make those comments about ‘the best actress is a smart actress’ and in letters that we found to Cole Porter or Hedda Hopper in the New York Public Library. So then there was this dilemma of how do we show people that he’s got this wit? If you have a narrator going, ‘Orry had a dry wit.’ It’s better to be able to use those lines.”
There weren’t enough photos of Orry to be able to have his lines as voiceover on photos of him so they decided to let him tell his own story, with dialogue written by Katherine Thompson. Many of the lines in the film were taken from things Orry had written. “Katherine is a great writer,” noted Armstrong. “She sort of became Orry. So here and there there’s a Katherine Thompson being Orry line, and there’s the occasional line that is Thompson doing her best imitation of Orry’s cheeky, witty style.” At one point, Armstrong recalls, “The writer said to me, ‘I can’t remember now if that line is Orry’s or mine.’ Factually, every single thing, we did our best, and I really believe you must, everything is close to the truth as you can. Everything in the story was based on our two years of the research.”
Perhaps most importantly, having an actor play Orry-Kelly (Darren Hilshenan) set the historical record straight: the man behind-the-scenes, whose memoir had been blocked from publication, would finally speak for himself. Many of Hilshenan’s scenes were shot in an old cinema, where Armstrong could project images on the screen to complement Orry’s monologue. Orry’s narration was then interspersed with historical footage, film footage, talking head interviews, and dispatches from Orry’s mother (Deborah Kennedy), hanging clothes on her clothesline in sunny Australia. “When we were researching, we found he came back to Australia, like once a year, to visit his mother in the early times,” explained Armstrong.
When Armstrong found a childhood photo of Orry posing in front of a boat with his hometown Kiama written on it, she found her inspiration for the film’s sets. As the photo was a quintessential tourist photo of that time, filming Orry in the boat on the stage of an old cinema would help evoke the era and Orry’s place in it. Armstrong explained that the boat “was a wonderful symbol for a little boy who crossed the oceans and became a designer of costume because he’s in a costume, and there’s this whole thing with the boat, having him in a boat. I hate those re-enactments in documentaries that are absolutely literal so they say ‘and so they crossed the fields and went to the post box and got the letter from the war” and the person crosses the field, goes to the… I wanted to make it more abstract and not on the nose.”
When Ross Wallace, the production designer found a photo of a red boat that they could hire, the film’s aesthetic suddenly came together. Armstrong elaborated, “We knew that it would be in and out of all those clips so we were also looking for something that was going to be graphic and visual, because his work was.” When she saw the picture of “these red boats that you can hire for a Sunday afternoon in the river, we went ‘red, fantastic!’ ” Armstrong continued, “Once we had the boat red, that really set the whole colour pallette. But I’d always thought that the key image should be the man in the white suit. Once we had the red boat, and we’ve got him in the ocean, how do we want to do the ocean. So it seemed right to go with that pop art look, to make it really bright blue.”
Throughout their two years of research in preparation for the film, Orry-Kelly’s memoir continued to elude them. Despite searching for Orry’s family, looking at genealogists, going on TV and national radio to try to find someone who could help them find it, they had no luck. It wasn’t until Armstrong happened to make an appearance on an FM radio station in Newcastle that a businesswoman who was close friends with Orry’s grand-niece heard her speak. Even that was a happy accident, as she works up and down the coast of New South Wales, but tuned in just in time to hear Armstrong mention Orry-Kelly in passing.
[quote type = center]Having written this thing with his voice, when we read the memoir, the greatest relief was ‘We’d got him. We’d got it right.’[/quote]
The next day, the businesswoman sent Armstrong’s agent an email, offering to put her in touch with her friend, — saying “by the way, she has his memoir,” Armstrong recalled. When Armstrong met Orry-Kelly’s grand-niece, she showed Armstrong the memoir which had indeed been “in that pillow case in a cupboard for 30 years after her mother died.” Armstrong added, “Having written this thing with his voice, when we read the memoir, the greatest relief was ‘We’d got him. We’d got it right.’ ”