Director’s Letter Gives Peek at Oscar-Winner Orry-Kelly, ‘Women He’s Undressed’

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“Women He’s Undressed,” documenting the life of Oscar-winner Orry-Kelly, costume designer to some of the most famous films of Hollywood’s Golden Era (and 9-year roommate of actor Cary Grant) opens today at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood, and will be released on all digital platforms and on DVD through Wolfe video Aug. 9. Below are excerpts of a letter regarding the making of the film written by Director Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, Mrs. Soffel, Oscar and Lucinda, My Brilliant Career) to her subject.

Director Gillian Armstrong. Photo by Tim Baure

Director Gillian Armstrong.                      Photo by Tim Baure

Dear Orry, you don’t know me.

I was only fourteen and still at High School in Melbourne when you died too young of liver cancer, in February 1964 at Cedar Sinai, Beverly Hills with your bestie Ann Warner by your side.

When Ann’s husband, your ex-boss, Jack, and Hedda Hopper read their eulogies at the Forest Lawn Cemetery … I was possibly shuffling around another Forest, Forest Hills Shopping Centre, looking for fabric for a new mini skirt.

Actually, dressmaking was not my strongest gift. However, like you I did make little characters, dolls and puppets and save choice bits of cut offs for their cloaks and silver crowns for my own mini puppet theatre.

Now I am a filmmaker, an Australian director who started here and then also worked with the US studios.

I don’t know how you will feel about this, but I have just finished making a Feature length Documentary about you, Mr. Orry-Kelly.

As a fellow member of the film business, and lover of the Art of Costume design, I am ashamed to confess that when Producer Damien Parer approached me about this film, I had never heard of you!

When he read out the list of films that you had designed, oh yes I knew them. Everyone knows them: “Some Like It Hot,” “Casablanca,” “Now Voyager,” “Jezebel,” “Maltese Falcon,” “Irma La Douce,” “Oklahoma” and fabulous “Mame.”

So you would be pleased to know that the works have stood the test of time. And you are mentioned glowingly in all the History of Costume books as one of the best of all time!

But no one really knows that you were born in Australia, a country boy from coastal Kiama.  Yet there you are in the Academy History books with your three Oscars for Costume.

I realized that if they actually had a Costume Design Award in the 1930s, you would have definitely been up there with many more gongs. All those 1930s classics, like “Jezebel” with Bette, and the Busby Spectaculars, “Forty Second Street” and “Gold Diggers” with Ginger would have been a shoo-in!

I bet you were completely pissed that Costume designers weren’t recognized by the Academy until 1948.

By then you had been head of Warners Costume for over twelve years and designed literally hundreds of great and some, not quite so, films and things weren’t so going so well in your life.

I admit when I started this I was not really up with your Film Era, the 30s and 40s, now called  “The Golden Age.”

To think that Henry Fonda’s daughter Jane was born just after you wrapped “Jezebel” and 20 years later you were designing for her too. We were so thrilled with her heartfelt interview and memories of you, Cukor and your posh green car.

From the ’30s till the ’60s, what a long career for a designer. You were certainly a survivor.

Thank heaven for my brilliant, witty red headed scriptwriter Katherine Thomson, also called super sleuth Thomson! We started by just viewing all the films we could find. I intended to fast forward just to check the cossies, but have to admit I got so sucked in.

Such great brave stories and complicated female characters.  How about Barbara Stanwyk in “Baby Face” and Bette in really everything!  I ended up sobbing at my computer while trying to take notes. “Now Voyager,” “Jezebel,” “Mr. Skeffington,” “Dark Victory.”

But back to you, I had so many questions.

How do you tell a story about the life and work and art of someone when they are gone when there are very few left alive who knew you? How would I feel if someone was trying to create an honest in depth portrait of me fifty years after my death mostly via press?

Can you believe that all the [Australian] National Library archives had were two tiny snippets. AUST COSTUME DESIGNER CANCER VICTIM Hollywood Feb 27th 64. Costume designer dies of cancer in Beverly Hills.

Where as in the U.S. your death mattered, big stories in the LA Times, NY Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and more. We found your fashion columns. We discovered some better, more personal interviews in NY Times and the Aussie Women’s Weekly (whenever you came home to visit your Mum.)

Online you are often called flamboyant and hot tempered, sort of the cliché costume designer, bitchy queen. Even mean spirited and jealous. A drunken troublemaker.

We got cold feet about that time, thinking do we want to do this story if we don’t really like him? I mean you don’t have to like a character; Florence Broadhurst  (“Finding Florence”) was real trouble and a con artist.  But she was fun and we had a murder to solve.

I had seen enough to think your costumes were just great, classy. You had an understanding and passion towards contributing to character and story that I admire.

So it was interesting to then find that in newspaper interviews in the ’30s that they noted that you did not look like the general idea of a costume designer. That you could have been an “architect or director.” And that you  “surprisingly” loved boxing.

So reading between the lines, “the code for the times.”

Digging around in your friends Hedda Hopper and Marion Davies’ NY archives, we discovered some tantalizing evidence.

“ I hope you liked what I wrote about you ……” Then, after they read the final draft, they are excited about the book they say “reads like a charm.”

This was the first real proof for us. You had written a book, your Memoir! Costume historians had mentioned rumours of this missing memoir. None of them had been able to find it.

So far, working out who you were had been through your friend’s letters and biographies. Hearing their stories and voices helped so much in filling YOU in.  But I wanted your real thoughts, your real humour, and yes, your private life.

Did you ever have a great love ? Was it a happy life? What were the ups and downs ? That self-penned bio should be gold. So where was it?

And how did you get that break on the West Coast? Here the stories really clashed.

There were different accounts, but most assumed it was because of your friendship with young Archie Leech. Ah yes, Mr. Cary Grant. Former young British vaudevillian, Archie Leech, your NY roommate for nine years.

You were meant to have painted murals together and run a Speakeasy. There are all sorts of rumours and stories. And probably the biggest Question of all. You and Cary.  What did go on there?

We needed that Memoir of yours. None of the US film archives had any leads.

Someone thought Ann Warner had sent a copy to your nieces back in Sydney. All the will said was that you didn’t want it to be published. Strange. You sounded so excited about it. Why?

We started looking for those Sydney relatives…. [Then] it was time to go public with the search. By now we had actually written a first draft outline.

You won’t believe the number of biographies out there now. Multiple Histories … And of course all your Directors like Cukor, Goulding and Vincent Sherman. Vincent’s is a good book. He confirmed the NY Roommates and the Speakeasy.

Some of those stories about you being trouble, or offending people started to make sense. You are Australian! Did the Aussie bluntness, call a spade a spade and our … Let’s call it, dry sense of humour, get you into trouble…?   Been there myself.

I read three bios on Mr. Cary Grant. You would have laughed, all the supposition, all the guesswork about his private life, about his sexual life.

How would anyone know? And who really cares! One even said they thought he was Asexual.  Were they under the bed? He was certainly a very complicated person.

A year [had] passed, still no Memoir but you would be thrilled to know that we had found seven friends, yes in their late eighties and nineties! Who knew you, cared about you and wanted to talk about you for the film.

Scotty Bowers, blue eyed ex marine, pimp to the stars, the fabulous Ann Roth, a wonderful designer herself and your ex assistant and playmate on “Oklahoma.” Jean Mathison, Brown Derby Cocktail set. June Daly Watkins, a young Aussie model who came and stayed, Vincent Sherman’s son Eric and the lovely Barbara Warner Howard, Jack and Ann’s daughter.

The amazing Angela Lansbury and finally Henry Fonda’s little girl Jane.

It was brilliant to have this wonderful group who could speak on camera with real memories and anecdotes. We knew we had a film, despite that missing Memoir.

Did we ever find it? Was it amongst the lost box of personal stills and costume sketches and fabrics that we finally discovered at Warners’ Archive? Or with your three slightly tarnished Oscars?

You will have to come and see the film to find out.

Orry, we did our best. We hope we caught a sense of the real you and the ups and downs of your extraordinary life. You burnt some bridges and let’s say not everyone appreciated your humour.

The bottle was your demon, but good on you for your integrity, passion and of course that hard work, resilience and unique talent.

Costumes caught forever by some incredible directors and actors in some of the most iconic films of all time.

Your Mother would be proud!

Your Aussie film biographer, Gill Armstrong

For more about the film see http://www.womenhesundressed.com/



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