Movie Review: Women He's Undressed (2015)
How do you dramatize in a documentary without archival footage? You’ve already got talking heads, photos, voiceovers. What else? How do you make the story come alive?
In his “Civil War” series, Ken Burns takes old photos and pans across them; it works. In “Tower,” Keith Maitland recreates scenes (and talking heads) via animation; it works. In “Women He’s Undressed,” Gillian Armstrong hires an actor (Darren Gilshenan) to play the subject, Australian-born costume designer Orry-Kelly, who clothed some of Hollywood’s greatest stars in its Golden Age. And it doesn’t work. Sorry. He talks directly to the camera, often, or exclusively, from a rowboat with KIAMA (the village in Australia where he was born) painted on the side. It’s supposed to be funny and theatrical but feels cheesy and cheap. I waited out these moments rather than anticipating them.
Armstrong also withholds any photos of the Kelly until the end, when we get a rash of them, along with his speech at the Academy Awards in 1961, accepting for “Some Like It Hot,” his third. It’s a nice revelation but feels like a cheat. It makes you realize Orry-Kelly is missing for most of his own doc.
Motorboat > rowboat
What a life: Australia to New York in the early 1920s, Broadway to Hollywood in the early 1930s. He was roommate/lover of Archie Leach/Cary Grant in Greenwich Village, and, unlike Grant, never hid who he was in the more circumspect, less open (not exactly liberal) Hollywood of the 1930s. Of course, unlike Grant, his career didn’t depend on being heterosexual. As a costume designer, particularly of female stars, he was all but expected to be gay.
And what actresses he helped clothe! Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell (unmentioned here), Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland (unmentioned), Cyd Charisse, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda. What movies he worked on: all the weepy Bette Davis melodramas, “Angels with Dirty Faces” (unmentioned), “Casablanca,” “An American in Paris,” “Oklahoma!,” “Auntie Mame,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gypsy.”
In the 1930s, he did gowns for the dames in the tough-guy Warner Bros. studio; in the 1940s he moved on to Fox. There was a gap in the early 1950s—no work between ’52 and ’55—which usually means blacklist but meant detox for him. Kelly was a nice guy but a mean drunk.
Most of the talking heads are other costume designers (Ann Roth is particularly good) and a few actresses he dressed. My favorite, by far, is Jane Fonda, who talks with amazement about Kelly’s dresses for Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot”: how they made the most of her most; how she seemed nude but wasn’t. She adds that she’s not a lesbian but those dresses make you wanna ... And here she does the motorboat: shaking her head, vibrating her lips, imagining herself in Monroe’s cleavage.
If I liked Jane Fonda before, I worship her now.
Watching, I kept thinking we needed a good doc on costume designers, the way we have “Visions of Light” for cinematography and “Casting By” for casting directors.
I’d also like a serious, in-depth look at homosexuality in Hollywood. It’s a helluva story: How gay actors/writers/directors helped create masculine archetypes for America and the world.
Start your engines.