Women He’s Undressed, Gillian Armstrong’s new documentary about Hollywood costume designer Orry Kelly, opens over an unnaturally-saturated view of a blue sky, with a quote from actress Fanny Brice: “Let the world know who you are because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose; then where will you be?” The stage is thus set for a bio-documentary that will reveal some hidden aspect of its subject, guaranteeing an interested viewer who will surely be surprised – and likely touched – by the revelation to come.
The first guess would be that the documentary will out Mr. Kelly. Now that gay marriage and an interest in equal rights for all humans, regardless of sexual preference/identity, are gaining real international footing, in the face of staunch opposition from a conservatism that’s somehow managed to persist and perhaps even flourish today, we are seeing a number of films that explore the tragedy of hidden, repressed, and oppressed homosexuality that has plagued so many people who made significant contributions to our culture and society – like, for example, The Theory of Everything. And Women He’s Undressed does seem to be interested in exploring Kelly’s sex life, particularly because, from very early in his career, he lived with a lover who never left the closet during his lifetime, the actor Archie Leach – otherwise known as Cary Grant.
Of course, once they moved to Hollywood and Grant’s celebrity increased faster than Kelly’s, Grant began the lifelong pose of monogamous heterosexuality that truly broke Kelly’s heart. This despite what Kelly’s friends and admirers acknowledge throughout the film, which is that Kelly himself was relatively out throughout his career – which, by the way, was defined by ups and downs but included three Academy Awards and the shared creation of a significant number of female actors’ career personas, including that of Ruth Chatterton, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis, to name a few.
I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this last fact about Kelly, his career, and his genius is easily the most fascinating thing about him. What was it like working with Rosalind Russell? Were Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon happier than Marilyn Monroe with Kelly’s work in Some Like it Hot? Did you know that Bette Davis had relatively large, saggy breasts? No, you probably missed that – because Kelly knew how to dress her to her best on-screen advantage.
These juicy tidbits shine through in the talking-head interviews that compose about half of the film, and they are fun, interesting, surprising, and a joy to watch. The other half of the film’s material is fairly experimental: Darren Gilshenan plays Kelly as a character in a number of symbolic and surreally-styled monologues about his life, beginning with his childhood and running all the way to his death, generally featuring a dapper Kelly seated in a rowboat, signifying, most likely, his journey from Australia to England and finally to the US.
The motivation behind this is two-fold: the film premieres in tandem with Kelly’s memoirs, recently discovered hidden in a pillowcase (titled Women I’ve Undressed), and which likely provides the majority (if not the totality) of this narration; the other being that there is little to no footage of Kelly himself, or of the celebrities he knew and worked with talking about him.
These narrations are told in a quippy, humorous fashion, and with a gaiety of color and music that likely reflects the tone of Kelly’s memoirs. This causes a little bit of a tonal mismatch; the seriousness of the opening quote, and the constant references to difficulties Cary Grant faced, are incongruous with the levity of the rest of the film’s treatment.
So the question might be, do we want the story that Kelly has already told in his own words in the now-published memoirs, with a degree of irony and panache; or do we want the story of Grant and the struggle most stars faced in a homophobic Hollywood; or do we want to know more about the women Kelly “undressed,” the information and storytelling that comes from the more conventional talking heads? It seems that Women He’s Undressed is attempting to overcome technical limitations and in so doing makes itself redundant with Kelly’s own writing, and fails to really serve his legacy.
CONCLUSION: Orry Kelly is clearly a fascinating figure in Hollywood history whose life should be celebrated any number of ways. Unfortunately, ‘Women He’s Undressed’ is too tonally awkward and unfocused to provide the filmic treatment he deserves.