J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

TIFF ’15: Women He’s Undressed

For many classic movie fans, costume design begins and ends with Edith Head, but Orry-Kelly was nearly as prestigious in their day. He dressed some of Hollywood’s most elegant actresses, but he did it at the gritty guns-and-gangsters studio, Warner Brothers. Not that it’s anyone’s business, but he also happened to be Australian. His fellow countryman Gillian Armstrong provides Orry-Kelly’s overdue ovation in the documentary Women He’s Undressed (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

In his early years, Orry Kelly (as he was born) probably knew more gangsters intimately than all of Warner Brothers’ tough guys put together. In some cases, “intimately” was indeed the right word. Surviving a number of scrapes, Kelly eventually made his way to Hollywood, by way of New York. Almost immediately, Kelly began living quite openly with a future legendary movie star. Armstrong’s talking heads make no bones about their relationship, but evidently the Hollywood icon was rather litigious on the subject, so we will leave it to Undressed to reveal his identity, when it screens again in Toronto, North by Northwest of here. (By the way, that was an impression of Walter Winchell.)

In time both men caught on with the studios plying their respective crafts. Warners wasn’t crazy about Kelly’s name, but they compromised on the hyphen, assuming it sounded classier, like Rimsky-Korsakov or something. Obviously, there was a falling out between Orry-Kelly and the other gent, but he had plenty of champions, most notably including Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell, neither of whom were shrinking violets. Of course, Orry-Kelly’s career had its ups and downs, but somehow he managed to not merely dress, but shape the images of some of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols, such as Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable.

If you want dish, Undressed delivers dish, while always remaining impeccably tailored. In addition, Armstrong enlisted an actor play Orry-Kelly to help tell his story through dramatic monologues and expressionistic vignettes. However, these are rather hit-or-miss, especially considering Darren Gilshenan is not exactly a dead ringer for the actual Orry-Kelly (whom we only see in archival photos as the film winds down). Nonetheless, the designer’s Hollywood in-fighting and his deal-with-it attitude are always compelling and frequently entertaining stuff.

Like many classic cinema docs, Undressed features Leonard Maltin as a talking head, but the man sure knows his old school Hollywoodland. Frankly, Orry-Kelly seems to bring everyone out of their shells. Loaded with gossip and chic frocks, it is just a lot of fun, even for straight men from New York. Recommended with affectionate fans of iconic Hollywood glamour, Women He’s Undressed screens again this Thursday (9/17) and Friday (9/18), as part of this year’s TIFF.

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