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Women He's Undressed: the fabulous life, loves and designs of Orry-Kelly


by Drew Rowsome -

Women He's Undressed is a film to fascinate film buffs, fashion connoisseurs, diva worshippers and those curious about gay history. As one, of I suspect many, who dwells where all four intersect, I am humiliated to admit that I was unaware of Orry-Kelly. The man designed the costumes for over 285 films, won three Academy Awards for his work, and was Cary Grant's paramour. And the films he designed not only include many favourites - Jezebel, Dark VictoryCasablancaThe Little FoxesOklahoma!An American in ParisThe Circus ClownI Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang - but also desert island/top 10 classics Auntie MameGypsy and Some Like It Hot.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I, who is obviously far less of a fashion connoisseur than I thought, I just assumed that Edith Head was responsible for many of the films. In actuality she usurped Orry-Kelly's role and he apparently referred to her, when he was being polite and was sober, as "pushy Miss Edith Head." But that is getting ahead of the story that Women He's Undressed unfolds in a graceful stylized manner that flows much like the draping of an Orry-Kelly gown.

Director Gillian Armstrong also wondered why Orry-Kelly was little-known to the general public and when she began to investigate and research, the story morphed into Women He's Undressed. The film is as much docudrama as it is documentary and the talking heads are interspersed with vignettes filled with saturated colours and overheated symbolism. Orry-Kelly is played by actor Darren Gilshenan and the dialogue and narration appears to be culled from Orry-Kelly's letters home to his mother in Australia, and Orry-Kelly's long-lost (but recently found and soon available) memoir entitled Women I've Undressed.

The recreations add an operatic, Fellini-esque flavour that flesh out Orry-Kelly's story in a way that turns a classic Hollywood narrative - from small town to Hollywood success to heartbreak to rehab to triumphant return to death - into a fresh dramatic arc. This is enhanced by Armstrong's framing it all in the context of Orry-Kelly's relationship with Cary Grant. The pair roomed together in New York for nine years and when their dreams of stardom stalled, they created a tie-manufacturing business that went bust. Grant became a "professional escort," says Orry-Kelly, "He broke hearts all over town but he still comes home to me."

The gossip only gets better from there and while Grant moves on to Randolph Scott then builds himself a luxurious closet, Orry-Kelly, inspired by Billy Haines, becomes a gay activist before there was such a thing. His unerring eye and work ethic made him too valuable to dispose of. Not every designer could create a gown so perfect that many viewers of Jezebel were sure it was red even though the film was in black and white. Or could solve the problem of Bette Davis' large breasts that "hung to her waist" because she thought underwire caused cancer.

Women He's Undressed is packed with tidbits, fabulous film clips, concise interviews (including Scotty Bowers!), gossip and, if the staged sections are occasionally overwrought or slapsticky, it all pays off with the denouement of the Grant relationship where all the symbols tie neatly together with a force that would break a heart of stone. And the question posed at the beginning of the film, "What happens to boys who like to dress dolls?" is answered.

At this point I'm itching to write of all the fun and gossipy gay facts I learned but those would be spoilers and Women He's Undressed should be allowed to elicit the gasps and laughs it creates. The painted monkeys, mobsters, divas, trolling for sailors, and making Natalie Wood appear tall, are all highly entertaining and worth discovering. And I have a few films to find (Baby Face where Barbara Stanwyck, in 1933, sleeps her way to the top with outfits to match) and some googling to do in order to find out just who Bob Roberts was. 

Women He's Undressed has already opened theatrically in Los Angeles and at several film festivals (the TIFF Bell Lightbox should jump on it quickly) and will be streamable as of Tues, August 9 across many digital platforms including WolfOnDemand.com, iTunes and Vimeo On Demand.

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