JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Women He's Undressed (Director: Gillian Armstrong) - September 28, 2015

Women He's Undressed

4.5 4.5
99 min.

Reviewed for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
The master of in-your-face design

Three cheers to director Gillian Armstrong and the entire production crew for stitching together such an enlightening, entertaining and edifying portrait of Orry-Kelly. From his beginnings in small-town Kiama, Australia, then a stint in Sydney, ostensibly to learn the banking business but, instead, discovering the magic of theatre, through an exciting foray to the Big Apple—featuring brushes with the law, sleeping with a pick pocket, selling hand-painted ties to survive and teaming up in bed and out with Archie Leach prior to his metamorphosis into Cary Grant—and a circuitous, casino-driven route that finally ended up in Hollywood for the dirty ‘30s.

Rather than just a straight documentary filled with archive footage, stills and talking heads (all of which are present to varying degrees), Darren Gilenshan is assigned the delightful task of playing the famed costume designer and unapologetic homosexual (his mother is affectionately portrayed by Deborah Kennedy). This subject-as-narrator conceit is given a fanciful twist by employing a two-oar rowboat where Gilenshan/Orry-Kelly pontificates, reminisces and comments on his own life in a manner not far from the tenor and tone of Oscar Wilde. Gilenshan produces a first-rate impersonation and the play on words offered by the method of maritime propulsion seems entirely appropriate once realized.

The film provides many fascinating details as to how the old adage “clothes make the man” takes on a completely new meaning. For it’s Orry-Kelly’s perfect sense of colour, fabric and accessories that made this man a favourite of many a Hollywood beauty including Bette Davis, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and—famously, marvellously—Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in restrained drag for the Academy Award winner (one of three for the magician of costuming) Some Like it Hot.

Being an outspoken, talented, gay man proved to be more than some studio bosses could bear, leading to frequent shifts in employers (more or less bookended by Warner Brothers) a long stint of alcoholism and periods of self-inflicted inactivity. Throughout it all, Ann Warner remained a staunch supporter and friend—indeed many women in his career found a non-judgmental shoulder to cry on as well as form-fitting, enhancing or revealing outfits as required.

Largely ignored by Leach/Grant after the popular actor hit his stride and sought the social cover of several ill-fated marriages, Orry-Kelly had some relationship stability with Bob Roberts. As his life drew to a close (cancer being the relentless Grim Reaper), Grant appeared to favour a reconciliation, but the rumour of a tell-all memoire may have led to this late-inning closeness. No spoilers here, but Armstrong handles the mystery of the memoire in a manner that is both in and worthy of her credits!

Gluing the non-archival footage together is Cezary Skubiszewski’s appropriately colourful score with a most welcome contribution from the Ashton Smith Singers.

Film buffs will savour the generous clips of exquisite “looks” over a 280+ film career; neophytes will likely seek out the heard-of-them titles to learn more from the master of dressing stars in a truly unique fashion. JWR

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Director - Gillian Armstrong
Cinematography - Anna Howard
Production Design - Ross Wallace
Editor - Nicholas Beauman
Historical figure - Orry-Kelly
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Palm Springs International Film Festival Toronto International Film Festival
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