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‘Women He’s Undressed’ – a Review and Chat With Director Gillian Armstrong

Poster WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED - Courtesy of Wolfe VideoProduced by Gillian Armstrong, Damien Parer,
Graham Buckeridge, Michael Wrenn
Written by Katherine Thomson
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
Featuring Darren Gilshenan, Deborah Kennedy,
Louis Alexander, Nathaniel Middleton, Lara Cox,
Kelly Ann Doll, Colleen Atwood, Kym Barrett,
David Chierichetti, Marc Eliot, Jane Fonda,
Ann Roth , Angela Lansbury, Leonard Maltin

I wholeheartedly believe that if they were put on the spot, a large proportion of self-proclaimed cineastes couldn’t come up with two or more famous costume designers after uttering the name, Edith Head.

It is for that reason that I must applaud Australian director Gillian Armstrong for her decision to begin her documentary, Women He’s Undressed, about three-time Oscar winning costume designer, Orry-Kelly by having another Oscar winning costume designer, Ann Roth (The English Patient) break the fourth wall by asking Armstrong directly on camera, “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is?”

I applaud this decision because by Armstrong’s own admission in her honest and touching director’s statement, she herself had no idea who Orry-Kelly was herself when producer Damien Parer approached her a few years ago with the proposal to do this documentary. I expected no less than that level of honesty from Gillian Armstrong.

To be completely candid, I have long been a fan of Armstrong’s work since seeing her seminal 1979 debut feature film, My Brilliant Career, which introduced American audiences to the extraordinary talents of Judy Davis and Sam Neill. That film, like all of her subsequent efforts over the years, was made with the same bold honesty that is contained within her director’s statement and her new documentary, Women He’s Undressed, which may be a bit too abrasive at times for some audiences expecting the standard bio-doc but remains similar to the rest of her body of work in that it has been created with a frankness that doesn’t overwhelm any of the complexity and humanity of her main protagonist.

Veda Ann Borg and Orry-Kelly from 1937

Veda Ann Borg and Orry-Kelly from 1937

One thing, in fact the most important thing, that comes through in Women He’s Undressed is that Orry-Kelly was one miraculously talented costume designer.

Armstrong and producer Parer gathered some of the finest costume designers of the last fifty years in the form of Colleen Atwood, Kym Barrett, Deborah Nadoollman Landis, Michael Wilkinson, and the aforementioned Ann Roth as well as actresses, Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury, and a sea of notable film critics and historians to sing praises of the man who came from the coastal New South Wales town of Kiama to Hollywood in the 1930s to design and stitch together costumes for over two hundred and fifty films over his illustrious thirty career. Even if you aren’t a cineaste, you have most likely seen Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, Oklahoma, or The Maltese Falcon, which are just some of the immortal titles that bear the costuming talents of Orry-Kelly. You watch in awe as this bio-doc flashes film after film before your eyes, all ones that our famed costume designer worked on during his career, but when Armstrong allows costume historian Larry McQueen to closely analyze an Orry-Kelly creation, the one worn by Natalie Wood in the 1962 musical comedy-drama, Gypsy, Women He’s Undressed reaches its maximum success. Now, it is my turn to be honest about my ignorance: Until I saw a McQueen’s breakdown of Orry-Kelly’s thought process when the designer was creating that particular costume, I had no idea how paramount this art is to the production of a film.

Actor Darren Gilshenan as Orry-Kelly

Actor Darren Gilshenan as Orry-Kelly

As a narrative device, Armstrong employs a technique similar to one used by Mark Rappaport for his 1995 docu-drama, From The Journals Of Jean Seberg, where an actor assumes the persona of the deceased protagonist and recites their dialog directly into the camera–dialog that is derived from what seems to be the protagonist’s personal memoirs.

In Women He’s Undressed, actor, Darren Gilshenan plays the part of Orry-Kelly and does a convincing job in not only conveying the late costume designer’s own words but also the emotions found within Orry-Kelly’s memoir, which I had the fortune to read shortly after seeing Armstrong’s film. Drawn directly from Orry’s memoir are his struggles living with his father, his issues with the bottle, his conflicts and joys in New York City and Hollywood, and the thread that will most likely be talked about the most after a viewing of this film: the long and sometimes even volatile relationship that the gay designer had over the years with his one-time roommate, Cary Grant.

Though the nature of that relationship is presented somewhat ambiguously onscreen, what is abundantly clear is that the time spent with and without Cary Grant caused Orry a great deal of distress for decades. There is a lot to be covered regarding this pairing of such large personalities in the film, and although my curiosity was piqued when the subject was broached, I found the inclusion of these moments to be a bit too plentiful, and, more often than not, their insertions into the narrative were somewhat mistimed throughout, which caused a conflict when delving into the central thesis of Women He’s Undressed. (Though, Armstrong later explains her choices for what was included from Orry’s memoirs in the interview that I conducted for this piece that you can read after this review.) Her documentary is indeed a story of the ups and downs of the legendary costume designer, and it remains watchable throughout, but for me, more balance needed to be achieved between Orry’s creative world and how his personal life actually affected his decisions when he was creating his art.

Film Still WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED - Courtesy of Wolfe Video

Despite my feelings towards the way the Grant/Kelly relationship is explored in the narrative, Women He’s Undressed stands as a consistently fascinating portrait of one of the finest artists of the twentieth century. At its core, it is the story of an immensely gifted man who came to Hollywood during in a time when dazzling talent, panache,and hustle were still placed at a level above in the hierarchy. Women He’s Undressed is also a sometimes heartbreaking portrait of a gay man who was allowed a little more freedom to express his sexuality as he worked behind the camera than his friends in the LGBT community who had roles in front of the camera. Luckily for all of us, Orry-Kelly had the presence of mind to write all of his experiences down during a time when they couldn’t be said in public, and we are also lucky that these experiences have now been adapted to film for all of us to see as there was indeed a great deal of love and pain that went into Orry-Kelly’s costumes.

Gillian Armstrong - Photo by Tim Baure

Gillian Armstrong – Photo by Tim Baure / Interview conducted on 8/3/16

FOG!: So much of your work, and here I am thinking about Oscar and Lucinda, My Brilliant Career, and even Little Women, are period pieces, which require a tremendous amount of costume research and production. Was your natural interest in costuming the spark for this project?

Gillian Armstrong: Yes, my admiration for costume designers was really my inspiration for this documentary as I myself have worked with some the finest costume designers in the world like Colleen Atwood and Janet Patterson, who did the costuming for Oscar and Lucinda, and Luciana Arrighi who right from the beginning was nominated for an Academy Award. I also try to work with the best sound people and cinematographers as well, but I felt that costume designing is a very misunderstood art. I think that most people have no idea how clever costume designers are and how important the costumes are to the actor and the storytelling. So many people think that good costuming is when you notice something, but the truth is the opposite: the best costuming is when you don’t notice.

The best costume designers can change the shape and the character of your actor and help them bring their character alive. So yes, that was part of the reason of why I was so interested in Orry’s story, and I am just as strict as he was as far as authenticity, like how clothes should never look so new, and even in a contemporary film, whether someone has one button or two buttons undone, or whether a shirt is wrinkled or not, says so much subliminally to an audience. Your character can simply walk onto a scene without saying a word, and just by seeing their costume, the audience can gain an understanding of their being and that comes so much from hair, makeup and costume.

As the version of Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell is one of my favorite films, and as Orry-Kelly’s costuming for Russell truly represents its own character, I could spend the entirety of a documentary just watching him create those particular costumes that were so perfect for the characters and the actors. You particularly spent substantial screen time illustrating Orry-Kelly’s creative process when he was making Gypsy, which does contain some of his finest work, but it is also a film where he won one of his three Oscars. Is that why you selected that film for such study?

Part of the reason was that Larry McQueen, the historian who appears in the documentary, had that particular costume. So few of these costumes still exist, and one of those wonderful people who find and restore costumes had that beautiful orange dress that Natalie Wood wore in Gypsy, which was a rare find, and as we had access to it, we could show you the trickery involved as we could show you the inside as well as the outside of the garment with Larry explaining it all.

What is interesting to me was that a lot of people who saw my documentary said to me that they had thought that they would’ve been bored by a film about a costume designer, but then they would remark that they were in awe of that scene when they realized the creativity and the artistry that went into to making that particular costume–the process that someone uses who makes costumes, making someone look taller, or creating a costume that narrows the shoulders of an actor when they naturally have broader shoulders but their character should have narrow shoulders.

No human being is perfect and so there is a lot of artistry that goes on behind the scenes to make them look more like the character.

Women He’s Undressed and our interview today inspired me to read Orry-Kelly’s memoir, which your publicist kindly sent over. I found what I have read so far fascinating and frankly, a bit disturbing as well. You of course center the film on Orry-Kelly’s magnificent career as a costume designer, but there is a substantial part of the film that is dedicated to his relationship with Cary Grant. What I found disturbing in the memoir is that despite their friendship, that Grant even once punched Orry-Kelly so badly during an argument that he lost some teeth. Given that their relationship was long, complicated, and tumultuous to say the least, how did you decide on the parts of their interactions that you wanted to include in the film?

The short answer is that, in the end, this is a story about what made Orry-Kelly great. Who was he? What was the talent, and what were the ups and downs of his life? When we finally saw the memoir, which only came to us about six weeks before we began shooting, we realized that there was a whole other movie that could be made about Orry-Kelly’s friendship with Cary Grant.

Actually, I think that I could make another full narrative film about that story. It is interesting about the memoir, which Orry-Kelly did have lawyers go over, which we know from his letters to Marion, is that he stated that the publishers wanted him to get it printed, but the lawyers said, “No,” so it remained shelved. He (Orry-Kelly) did write about their friendship which was indeed long, and they were buddies who helped each other out, so we had talk about that.

Another thing to consider was how much time Orry spent with the underworld when he was in Australia before he left, which was also a part of the memoir, but we had to get him to Hollywood, so we made a choice. Really, the Orry and Cary story, which constituted their nine years together in New York, is almost its own movie, so we would never have been able to do his Hollywood life had we focused more on his relationship with Cary Grant. So, you have to make these kind of decisions when making a documentary. Lastly, those scenes with Cary would’ve meant major drama.

That said, I think that Orry was very hurt about Cary never mentioning him all of those years, but you’ve got to say that considering that Orry liked to drink and spout off a lot that it was commendable that he did keep his mouth shut about Cary and their relationship. Orry wrote this memoir as an older man, near the end of his life during the 1960s, and yet he wrote it very carefully.

Obviously, it was still the 1960s, and you couldn’t say that you were gay, or you would most likely get arrested, but Orry’s memoir is still a great insight into these two young men who were just starting out in Hollywood. There is even another scary story in the memoir where Orry suggests to Cary that he should consider getting a speech and drama teacher to help him work on his English accent, and Cary pushed him out of a moving car in Los Angeles! That’s why I feel that people should see my film about him, and they should also go out and read his memoir if they want the full story.

I read your director’s statement and I understand that you did not know that Orry-Kelly was a fellow Australian before beginning this project. After the years of research you have done to make this documentary, what is the takeaway in terms of Orry-Kelly, the Australian. How do you see his Australian-ness come through in his life and work?

The very key thing for us early on when we read a number of comments about him that Orry was rude and that he had offended people and so on, and I thought, “Oh, he’s just an Australian.” We are very direct, no bullshit people, and also we share this very sardonic humor. And I know myself from when I am in LA, and I have said something, and I get these very blank looks from people, I am prompted me to say, “No no no, that was a joke, I was only kidding.” So, I think that this typical Australian characteristic was something that I could clearly see in Orry, that sometimes when he offended people, he may have only been trying to be funny, but they didn’t get the joke.

My final question for you also comes with a heartfelt compliment. I feel obliged to say that I saw your first feature, My Brilliant Career, when I was teen back in the early 1980s and have gleefully followed your career ever since. I love your whole body of work, but my absolute favorite of yours is The Last Days Of Chez Nous, especially because of the performances you received from Lisa Harrow, Kerry Fox, and Bruno Ganz. I have always wondered about one thing since seeing it over twenty years ago…I saw the film in the early 1990s, and at that point I only knew Bruno Ganz from his work in German language films, specifically Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, but the character who he plays in your film, JP, is a Frenchman who can be rather unpleasant to his wife. I think that your decision to cast him was brilliant, but what film did you see Ganz in that made you feel that he was a good fit for that role?

Thank you so much. Well, I always thought that Bruno was adorable, and that was the most important thing when casting for the role of JP as this was the story of a marriage breaking up, and we wanted the husband to be sympathetic. So, Jan Chapman, the producer of that film, and I went to France, and we saw all of the top French actors as the character of JP, but all of them had an arrogance about them that we felt audiences wouldn’t have liked.

Bruno happened to be in London at the time that we were casting, but we thought that we might be stretching it as he (Ganz) is Swiss, but he came in to audition, and we both thought that he was so charming and loveable, and being that I was a fan of Bruno’s from his work with Wim Wenders, we asked him if he would leave the Berlin winter to come to Sydney in the summer and shoot this film in a little hot house, and he nearly died doing it (laughs) as he was not used to that kind of heat, but he was wonderful in the film. He is an extraordinary actor.

 

Women He’s Undressed arrives on DVD and VOD tomorrow, August 9th

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