Watch: Women He's Undressed

Academy Award-winning Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly is being immortalised in film

One of Orry-Kelly’s sketches of the costumes from Some Like It Hot.

You’re not uncultured if the name Orry-Kelly doesn’t ring a bell. Director Gillian Armstrong had to Google it when she was approached to make a film about the late artist. Yet that’s precisely what makes the new documentary about his life so interesting.

Women He’s Undressed, which hits cinemas tomorrow, charts the career of the Australian costume designer, from his early life in the small bush town of Kiama in New South Wales, where he was born Orry George Kelly in 1897, to his hungry years in New York and success in Tinseltown in the 1930s.

“He was very well known in the 30s and 40s,” says Armstrong. “We found all these interviews where he was treated like a superstar, with everyone in Australia calling him ‘our Orry’.

“But when he died in 1964, there were only two lines saying ‘costume designer dies from liver cancer’ in the Australian press. Whereas in America, it was a full page in Variety, Hollywood Reporter and in the New York Times. So it was interesting that he was so quickly forgotten.”

Perhaps some of the films he worked on sound more familiar — Casablanca, Some Like It Hot and 42nd Street — or the actresses he put clothes on — Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn, among many others. In fact, Kelly won three Academy Awards, which was the most an Australian had ever scooped until fellow costume designer Catherine Martin trumped him for her work on The Great Gatsby.

Although there was evidence of his triumphs, it was harder for the producers to grasp what the designer’s personality was like when making the film.

“People don’t ask costume designers in-depth things about their life and philosophy — they just ask them whether you should wear a spot with a stripe and what skirt’s going to be in next summer,” Armstrong says.

Instead, the production team unearthed personal letters Kelly had written to various colleagues and his mother back home, which gave insight into his dry and witty character.

To portray this humour, Armstrong enlisted the help of Australian actor Darren Gilshenan, who provides a first-person narrative of Kelly to rather dramatic effect, as well as using anecdotes from people who knew him, such as Jane Fonda. With their research, the film-makers found that what set Orry apart was his dedication to authenticity in both his professional and personal life.

“He really fought to be authentic with the period films, and often at that time, they didn’t care at all — they might have been running around in the Victorian era, but with whatever the 1930s, 1940s clothes were.”

Kelly also steered away from Hollywood cliches: “No actress of mine does a freaking love scene in floral or puffy sleeves,” he’s quoted as saying. His trademark style was instead very believable. He often chose simple clothes, because he thought Hollywood was too full of glitter.

Although this man from small-town Australia may not have been remembered with all the credit he deserves, it seems he’s finally getting his time again.

Women He’s Undressed is in cinemas from tomorrow.

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New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

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