“Women He’s Undressed” – 2015 Toronto Film Review

Who is Orry-Kelly?  Gillian Armstrong’s documentary on the man, “Women He’s Undressed” (2015), will show that the Australian costume designer was one of the architects of the look that would become synonymous with classic Hollywood. His ability to study an actor’s form and design clothes not only flattered his or her body, but also visually illustrated who the character was through the use of fabric.  A well-known hot property, he designed and dressed practically every major star then and garnered three Academy Award wins for his work.

All in all, except for a few bumps on the road, Orry-Kelly seemed to have lived a rather charmed life. So much so that as the closing credits started rolling, I wondered what the point was of making this documentary.  If Armstrong is to be believed, Orry-Kelly is the Hollywood Oscar Wilde minus the writer’s tragic end. Although the director introduces a lot of threads that you think will culminate in a dramatic moment or reveal some deep dark secret from the grave, it doesn’t. The picture is all buildup and no climax.

With a run time of about 99 minutes, what you get from the story of Orry-Kelly was that he was talented, headstrong, openly gay, and equally loved and feared by the Hollywood elite because of his friendship with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Ann Warner, wife of Warner Bros. mogul Jack Warner. These were powerful women who shielded him from the enemies he made during his career due to his inability to censor himself in open conversation. Structured chronologically the documentary begins with Orry-Kelly’s  early childhood in a small Australian town segues, to his time working on Broadway during Manhattan’s halcyon days and finally screeches to a halt during Kelly’s prolific Hollywood career.

“Women He’s Undressed” utilizes a mix of talking head interviews, era-specific media, and the casting of Australian stage actor Darren Gilshenan.  The actor portrays Orry-Kelly in whimsical interludes, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience in a monologue about whatever important event the director deemed worthy enough. Gilshenan does his best to add levity to the story, but he is so successful that the film ultimately turns into something of a fluff piece.

Several scholars and friends of Orry-Kelly explicitly state that Hollywood during the pre- and early-postwar era was very homophobic, but the designer seemed to not have professionally suffered from discrimination even though he was an openly gay man. With this in mind, the only reason I believe Armstrong continually goes back to that well is because the “secret” Orry-Kelly took to his grave was his possible romantic relationship with Cary Grant.  This is milked throughout the documentary with the use of photos, film clips, interviews and comical soliloquies by Gilshenan.  Armstrong also devotes much screen time to the secret history of Hollywood’s gay elite to the point that, as an audience member, I was more drawn to that story and less interested in Orry-Kelly’s life.

Nothing about this documentary was groundbreaking or really caught my attention. For hardcore fanatics of Hollywood cinema, Armstrong’s picture offers nothing new to digest about that era, and it won’t spark an interest in that time period if you didn’t already have a desire to learn more. “Women He’s Undressed” dips its toe into the life of Orry-Kelly but ironically keeps its clothes on when dealing with the man’s seemingly tumultuous past.

“Women He’s Undressed” made its international premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.  It screens Thurs., Sep. 17, at 7 p.m., and Fri., Sep. 18, at 12:15 p.m.  For ticket information, go to tiff.net.