How out costume designer Orry-Kelly defied Hollywood
Director Gillian Armstrong rose to fame in the U.S. as part of the Aussie New Wave of filmmaking in the late 1970s and early ’80s — a movement that also included George Miller, Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and Phillip Noyce. Notably, Armstrong was the only woman on that list, and she brought a feminist perspective to her films, including My Brilliant Career, Little Women and Mrs. Soffel.
But all of these films were decades ago; she hasn’t released a feature in the U.S. in 15 years. So her return now, with the documentary Women He’s Undressed, is a welcome one. And not just because of Armstrong, but because of her topic: the Australian-born Hollywood fashion designer Orry-Kelly, one of the Oscar-winningest Aussies in film history. But while Undressed is putatively about Orry-Kelly’s life and career, it’s indirectly one of the most revealing chronicles ever attempted of gay life in the film world.
I chatted with Armstrong from her base in Sydney about the provocative “outing” of Hollywood stars, the importance of costuming in moviemaking and the state of same-sex marriage Down Under.
Women He’s Undressed becomes available on DVD, as well as VOD and digital platforms on Tuesday.
Dallas Voice: How did a straight woman make such an investigative film about gay life in Hollywood? And did you know much about Orry-Kelly before you started? Armstrong: No, it was really my producer’s baby. [He was] researching about Australians who had won Academy Awards, and at that time the most an Australian had won was Orry-Kelly. [He decided he wanted to make a film about it], and it was really a friend of a friend who said, “Why don’t you talk to Gill Armstrong?” When he approached me I said who’s [Orry-Kelly]? Then I looked at his films, and went, “Oh my goodness — 42nd Street? Casablanca? Dark Victory? The same guy did all of these?”
So that’s how you were hooked. What made you settle on the format you used, to have Orry-Kelly portrayed by an actor, who sort of narrates the film in the first person? It was a tough decision. The thing was, we found a lot of the words he said in the letters and the memoir he wrote, which we discovered two months before shooting, had this dry, self-deprecating wit. If someone told you what he said, [it wouldn’t have the same impact] — you really had to hear it. So we did a stylized shoot. It’s sometimes a shock to have an actor in a documentary, but I think the audience forgets it’s an actor and you have a great emotional involvement with the character.
It wasn’t until the end that I realized we never saw any pictures of Orry-Kelly throughout, except in his youth — you tell the story through his work and images of others. It was a conscious decision. When we decided to have an actor portray him, we knew if we were to cut to a real photo, you think, “Oh, his nose is wrong” or “his hairline is deeper,” and it takes you out of the story. So I made the decision not to show him other than as a little boy in a sailor suit [until the end]. Also, there weren’t a huge number of stills — who cared about the costume designer back then? They [wanted to see his clothes and the women wearing them].
You convey a lot about the creative value of costuming — in fact, two of your films were Oscar-nominated for their costume design! They were! I’m a huge fan of costume design — it’s one of the reasons I took this film on. I love to help the public understand what goes on behind the scenes. So yeah, I choose wonderful costume designers and push them to do all the things Orry did — I want them to [reveal] character and enhance the mood and the scene.
So, you still haven’t said why the gay history was so important to you. Well, when you try to tell a truthful portrait of someone, you have to place them in their historical and social context. There were so many myths that I needed to get to the bottom of. A strong part of who he was and how he behaved, [in contrast to] how his old friend Cary Grant behaved. That was due to the homophobia of the time. It was really remarkable — the 1920s was so open [to people being out of the closet]; it wasn’t until after the Wall Street crash that society really tightened up. I understood how there were — and continue to be — a lot of pressure on actors to appear completely heterosexual, but there was also pressure on the costumes designers to have lovely wives and homes because the studios wanted to publicize them as well. But [Orry] refused to have that sham marriage, while the others, like Cary Grant [who the documentary implies was in several long-term same-sex relationships, including with Orry] toed the line while their boyfriends lived nearby, connected through the garden gate. What terrible pressure to have people keep up [such a sham]. And Orry had none of it.
Australia has a reputation as being a fairly open community; is same-sex marriage legal there now? Same sex marriage is not legal, and it has been a huge controversy. We have a conservative government here, and [the conservatives] won’t permit same-sex marriage without a plebiscite. It’s always the way: Public opinion is with [equality], but a noisy, small conservative minority [rattles the cage]. But if you start making [human rights] subject to a public vote, it stirs the “anti campaign,” doesn’t it?
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 5, 2016.