Film Review: Women He’s Undressed

We attended the World Premiere of director Gillian Armstrong’s documentary about the life of Australian costume designer and three-time Oscar winner, Orry-Kelly. Here’s our review and photos:

You probably haven’t heard of Orry-Kelly. He has been largely unacknowledged in his country of birth and forgotten in the US. So Women He’s Undressed is seeking to, if you’ll excuse the pun, redress that fact through its exploration of the life of Australia’s most prolific costume designer. Prolific? Damn right. He worked on an astonishing 282 motion pictures. Yup, 282. He designed for the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell and Errol Flynn. The films? Oh, only little productions like Some Like It Hot and Casablanca!

Women He’s Undressed takes in the whole of Kelly’s life, from his childhood in New South Wales, to his experiences as a young man in Sydney, to his time in New York and eventually Hollywood. It deals with his homosexuality and his relationship with Cary Grant, with his alcoholism and of course, with his incredible talent as a costume designer.

The film works best when combining footage of Kelly’s costumes on the silver screen with interviews with the likes of Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda and contemporary designers who positively gush about his work. It’s an absolutely fascinating insight. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments (not least Fonda’s reaction to Marilyn Monroe’s boobs in Some Like It Hot) and innumerable dresses to inspire absolute awe. Such brilliance, such an eye for detail, such glamour. He knew how to match the clothing to the mood of a scene, how to accentuate certain areas of a body and how to draw attention away from other parts (Betty Davis and her “limp” breasts being one rather harsh example given).

It’s not just about beautiful garments though. The plight of a gay man in the first half of the 20th Century is well explained and, in particular, the dynamic between the very out Kelly and the not-at-all out Grant is really interesting. There are plenty of surprising facts about the Hollywood studio system and about some of its main players and stars over the course of the 100 minute running time as well.

The use of an actor to perform monologues as Kelly doesn’t quite work as well. These excerpts from his long lost memoirs are a magnificent and vital inclusion to the story though and the format of their delivery gets less annoying as the film goes on. Some of the editing of the talking heads is strange and jarring as well. These though, are minor gripes.

Overall this is a delightful documentary which should be seen by anyone who has a love of cinema and of fashion, or by those who just want to hear a remarkable story about one of Australia’s least celebrated – yet highly decorated – exports.

Here are some photos from the World Premiere at Sydney Film Festival this Wednesday:

women he's undressed 1women he's undressed 2 women he's undressed 3 women he's undressed 4 women he's undressed 5 women he's undressedwomen he's undressed 8women he's undressed 9

bobby townsend


Review by Bobby Townsend. Photos by Addy Fong..