Sunday 14 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (36) -Barrie Pattison reviews Gillian Armstrong's Women He's Undressed


I can’t claim any objectivity in writing about this one. I’ve just seen it in the presence of Gillian Armstrong  surrounded by an enthralled Cremorne audience who think of her as one of their own who has found her way into the light. and the piece is about people who have fascinated me all my life - Randolph Scott, Jane Fonda, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood ... and costume designer Orry-Kelly, major contributor to 42nd ST. CASABLANCA, (one third of) An AMERICAN IN PARIS and SOME LIKE IT HOT, collecting three Oscars along the way.

Whether or not the film got them right, I’ll never look at Cary Grant and Bette Davis the same way again. As Elia Kazan’s costumer Ann Roth observes, despite the fact that Kelly had this extraordinary career, the reason Armstrong and her team wanted to get stuck into him was that he came from local home town Kiama. You can query their methods - his letters from his re-enacted mum, filmed with Deborah Kennedy in front of the light house and repeat insets of the town’s blow hole or indeed the whole rowboat linking structure. However the work is handsome and ambitious and there is the winning account of their research leading to Kelly’s unpublished (at the demand of Cary Grant?) autobiography, which came out of a local relative’s drawer and will see the light of day shortly, following the boost the film has given his prominence.

It’s hard to believe that so many people are only discovering Orry-Kelly at this point. Kelly’s fellow designers Travis Bainton, Adrian and Edith Head also get a mention - not Max Ree and René Hubert though. The film focuses on Alcoholism in the profession before rehab was standard.

They have another anchor for the production, with homophobia in Depression era
Hollywood, contrasted with freewheeling Greenwich Village, where young Orry made his land fall in the US. This secondary theme tends to engulf the production, with the most telling section the largely irrelevant one dealing with (the awful) William Haines, who emerges heroically from his encounter with Louis B. Mayer, in contrast to other film capital gays who lived lies to placate studio bosses. 

The film does go into unfamiliar and welcome information on Orry-Kelly’s craft, being the first person to draw the star’s faces on their preliminary costume sketches, finding ways to misrepresent the bodies of the glamour performers he dressed, styling their succeeding outfits so that these narrate the story as much and sometimes more than the writers and cameramen. Remember Ingrid Bergman asking for clarification on her motivations in CASABLANCA and baffled when they answered by telling her about the clothes she’d wear.

The selection of clips is inevitably exceptional, motivating a fresh viewing on the genuine classics and intriguing programmers that make up Kelly’s near three hundred credits, though reproduction here is less perfect than much of what we are getting now.

Watching this here does provide one previously unvoiced thought. Orry-Kelly, like
John Farrow and to a lesser extent Errol Flynn and Cecil Kellaway made their way from Australia to Hollywood prominence alone. They were hard yards. There was none of the well oiled mechanism that propels recent NIDA graduates into a place in the newest strip toon colossus today. That does make their story more notable to us.

*Women He's Undressed, Directed by Gillian Armstrong, Australia, 2015, 100 minutes

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