by Sherif Awad
Aussie director Gillian Armstrong is one the few directors who succeeded in the realms of both documentaries and features. In addition to Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda and Charlotte Gray, Armstrong has made important documentaries like Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces and Love, Lust & Lies. Released recently online, her new documentary Women’s He’s Undressed tells the textraordinary Hollywood story of Australia’s Orry-Kelly…the designer whose costumes created some of the most magical moments in cinema history.
The film takes us to the Golden Age of Hollywood where Orry-Kelly lived as a legend as his costume designs were adored by cinema’s greatest leading ladies – but in his home country of Australia his achievements remained unknown.
Orry-Kelly contributed to 282 motion pictures starring the greats Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell, Errol Flynn and many more. His films included Some Like It Hot, Casablanca, An American in Paris and Now, Voyager.
Orry-Kelly was born on 31st December, 1897 to a mother who introduced him to the theatre at the age of seven. Ten years later Orry moved to Sydney where he was to finish his schooling and then join a bank. In 1922, Orry sets sail for prohibition New York on the Sonora via Honolulu, bravely stepping out into the unknown to start a new life. He finds himself living in a hotel on 47th Street, aptly named ‘Dream Street’ because of all the actors living there. New York nightclub shows offer Orry the opportunity to create sets, his transformations receive good reviews. At the Shubert Theatre he starts dressing Ethel Barrymore and someone called Katherine Hepburn. Later in Los Angeles during the 1930s, talkies are taking over. His work in New York gives him no entrée into Hollywood. Jack Warner has broken all the rules and raided Paramount and stolen some of their biggest stars. Jack’s only issue was he now had to find a dress person who could make his new ladies Kay Francis and Ruth Chatterton, happy. Within a year every studio had fashion designers on full time staff. But Orry was different from his contemporaries; he made an impact with simplicity. He set the tone at Warner Bros., elegant simplicity and class. Orry-Kelly went on to become one of Hollywood’s highest paid costume designers. He was brash, bold, brave and revered by some of Hollywood’s brightest and best actresses. His mouth however could get him into trouble, afterall Orry was an Aussie, and being upfront wasn’t to everyone’s taste – especially some of the powerful studio heads who were used to ‘yes’ people. This created a rocky road at times for Orry, but no one could deny his talent and in Hollywood, talent would always win out. Orry-Kelly (Jack to his friends) won three Academy Awards® and was nominated for a fourth. Orry was Head of Warner Brothers Costume Department during the richest period of American film history, the establishment of the ‘dream factory’ and a key influence on mass culture through his costume patents and radio shows. Orry-Kelly won an Oscar for each of An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959). He was nominated for Gypsy (1962).