Film Review: Women He’s Undressed at BFI Flare

Google “Old Hollywood” and one can’t help but stumble across a few famous names: Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and Ava Gardner, to name a few.  However, there’s one name that can be credited for giving all of those other names along Hollywood Blvd their signature glitz and glamour.  That name is Orry-Kelly.

Long recognized as Australia’s most prolific costume designer (until fellow Aussie Catherine Martin topped his Oscar count in 2014), Orry-Kelly’s work has appeared in over 250 films, over a career that spanned 3 decades.  Kelly possessed a resume that today’s wardrobe departments could only dream about.  His film credits include Casablanca, 42nd Street, The Maltese Falcon, An American in Paris, and Some Like It Hot.  His longest tenured employer was none other than Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. Studios.  However, Kelly’s journey through the birth and expansion of Hollywood wasn’t an easy one, especially for an openly gay man living and working in a predominantly homophobic environment.

Filmmaker Gillian Armstrong’s playful docu-drama, Women He’s Undressed takes a thoughtful and engaging look at an eccentric man who was bold enough to do anything he wanted even when the odds were stacked against him.  Combining classic Hollywood film, live interviews, found correspondence, and creative live action vignettes, Armstrong introduces audiences to one of the most important figures of classic cinema.  The director weaves her story through memories and glimpses of the Old Hollywood era, yet manages to maintain a more vibrant pace than most documentary filmmaking.

Women He’s Undressed

The film opens with a glimpse into Kelly’s early life.  Born Orry George “Jack” Kelly, he grew up in the small seaside town of Kiama, New South Wales, Australia.  Kelly’s father was a tailor, but his parents had higher aspirations for their only son.  As a result, a young Jack Kelly was sent off to Sydney to learn about banking, and instead, spent his time in the theatres and risqué clubs that illuminated the Sydney nightlife.

Kelly’s love of theatre eventually drew him to Broadway, where he met and fell for none other than Cary Grant.  A naturally talented artist, Kelly started to carve out a living by painting ties.  A seemingly small time gig, filmmaker Armstrong points out just how popular Kelly’s ties were, as many of the who’s who of New York were happy to don Kelly’s custom work.

Feeling the call of Hollywood, Kelly and Cary Grant soon packed up and headed for the West Coast to try their luck in the film industry.  It proved to be the smartest move for both young men.

Orry-Kelly’s artwork caught the eye of many film executives, which led to his first gig in film.  Almost overnight, Kelly went from being a starving artist to living in a lavish home and working personally with some of Hollywood’s most elegant leading ladies.  Kelly is credited for bringing out each actresses’ unique features, which is likely what led to a successful decades-long collaboration and mutual trust with Bette Davis.  Armstrong carefully compiles interviews and film footage to explain how Kelly took this bright young actress with an unusual figure and made her into Hollywood’s most desirable starlets.  This is a task for plastic surgeons in today’s Hollywood.  Instead of the scalpel, Kelly worked his magic with only needle and thread.

Women He’s Undressed is a tragic delight.  Tragic in the sense that Orry-Kelly is one of the greatest talents many have never heard of, yet delightful in seeing how much Kelly’s work influenced the design and style of Old Hollywood and laid the groundwork for film production and wardrobe design. But beyond his expertise in costume design, Kelly is lovingly regarded as one of the earliest gay rights advocates in the homogenous and homophobic environment of the era.  Armstrong does well to illustrate how brash and bold Kelly was, maintaining that he was Out and going to stay that way, even in a time when film executives were forcing gay actors to marry Hollywood starlets just to keep up appearances.

At the conclusion of the film, Gillian Armstrong delivers an impactful and bittersweet adieu.  Audiences are invigorated by Kelly’s story, starry eyed by the Old Hollywood glamour, and mourning the loss of a man they spent the past 95 minutes learning to love.

4.5 stars

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of Gillian Armstrong

Dave Croyle

Dave Croyle

Dave Croyle is an advertising and marketing professional with a knack for building ideas and getting things done. Throughout his career he has written and produced creative work for a variety of brands, big and small. As a history buff and art geek, Dave is passionate about exploring cultures and seeing the world. Dave resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife and two dogs.