Orry-Kelly played by Darren Gilshenan with cocktail party guests. Photo: Hollywood Classics.

Orry-Kelly played by Darren Gilshenan with cocktail party guests. Photo Credit: Hollywood Classics.

The beloved funny girl Fanny Brice once remarked: “Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be, because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then where are you?”

Famed Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) set out with her new documentary, Women He’s Undressed, on the three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly to find out just who he really was. Recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, the result of her search is a mesmerizing behind-the-scenes look at the fantasy world of Hollywood and the man who tried to make it real through his art.

She begins the unfolding of her tale with a darkly tongue-in-cheek depiction of Kelly’s funeral, the pallbearers none other than a bevy of glamorous female models decked out in showgirl red. The corpse is Kelly, of course, played with the sprite-like dash of a middle-aged Peter Pan by Darren Gilshenan. Nattily attired, he raises his head, throwing a devilish wink at the audience. It’s a wonderful tease into the rest of the film, promising a leap from the traditional mode of a straightly-told (no pun intended) narrative to a freewheeling tragicomic voyage.

And what a voyage! Kelly hailed from Kiama, a small backwater Australian town south of Sydney. Now, no ordinary boy could be expected to grow up with such an extraordinary theatrical talent for dress design in such a place, but Kelly certainly wasn’t ordinary. We witness the prepubescent wunderkind fussing with dolls — a preoccupation that was savagely knocked apart by an angry father. No wonder he set his sights for happier climes. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean,” the younger Kelly confesses, “the horizon beckons you every day.” Soon the young man Kelly is seen shedding a business suit and heading out to sea in a small boat. The transition is a little abrupt, but the director seems to feel comfortable enough in letting the suit symbolize her young adventurer in stereotypical costume — only too ready to peel off this boring attire (like a fledgling butterfly) for a far more exciting life to come. Armstrong uses a number of repetitive rowboat scenes throughout the film as a device to indicate the transitory nature of success and love in our hero’s life.

It’s a risky choice. Fortunately, production designer Ross Wallace has done an immaculate job with these assorted vignettes. Early in the script, Kelly’s no-nonsense mother is seen tending to her clothesline choresagain, a visual choice on the part of the director to show Kelly’s early no-frills upbringing. Pampering herself in front of a dressing table mirror, mother-dearest becomes a little more imperious as time marches on and far-off Hollywood crowns her son with success. She signs off on all her letters by advising him to “be sure to keep your bowels open and you won’t get an appendicitis.”

A string of these fairy tale vignettes are artfully inserted into a mother lode of classic films, films revealing his genius at depicting character through costuming. And Armstrong gives us some of the best examples in celluloid history. Just consider the following: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), transformed from an ugly duckling into a striking, self-assured woman; Marilyn Monroe as Sugar in Some Like it Hot (1959) wiggling her way through scenes in such transparency of dress, it was inconceivable that the film escaped censorship; and child star Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy (1962), who was living proof that he could turn a five-foot-two ingénue into an elegant, bigger-than-life stripper with the right padding.

Screenwriter Katherine Thomson (reunited with Armstrong after Unfolding Florence) has crafted a docudrama that manages to blend her fanciful vignettes with chosen film clips and a rash of interviews from screen icons, fashion designers and Hollywood historians alike. The only glitch is that it’s a real taffy-pull between the clips, the cogent and revealing remarks from those interviewed, and the whimsical, fairy tale rendering occurring behind-the-scenes. No matter how brilliantly the filmmaker fashions this somewhat unwieldy bag of tricks, it’s the audience’s job to accept the conceit — or not.

Kelly was a man who refused to stay in the closet in a time and a town that was the most homophobic in the world. Studios were run by Eastern European moguls that may have never heard of homosexuality. They wanted the beautiful American dream, all dusted off and presented for our eyes. Kelly’s own world was also one of make-believe — the creative obsession to make sure the audience would buy his own fantasy version on screen through his exquisite imagination. But his universe was also, as interpreted by Armstrong, one that involved his intimate relationship with Cary Grant — a lifelong journey that drew the two men into an underworld where spiraling ambition and secrets held sway.

It’s a fascinating story. Do we really need the stylistic romp to tell it? Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. Style is substance in Kelly’s larger-than-life existence. There’s no question there are moments in this cartoonish sideshow, replete with a wonderfully eccentric cast, that are delightful. A jazzy and voluptuous score by Cezary Skubiszewski goes a long way in keeping the viewer in their seat. The musical rhythms and the unfolding drama are in perfect counterpoint.

A similar technique has been employed by director Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge, who as a director has no qualms in reminding us to reimagine the truth of the whole business as he sees it, then plunking us back into the matter at hand. Granted, Luhrmann is toying with a classic fictional tale, while Armstrong is juggling the bits and pieces of ephemera that make up an actual life, but the challenge is the same: how to keep the audience engaged in the story from the opening to the closing frame.

Highlights of Armstrong’s film archive footage are varied and rich in detail. We are given great insights into Kelly’s longtime relationship with Bette Davis — when the star was passed over for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, she put all her energy into getting Jezebel (1938) produced — Warner Brothers’ answer to Gone with the Wind. Designer Colleen Atwood tells us that even in black and white, the way the light shone on Kelly’s well-chosen fabrics, “people believed they saw a red dress” on Davis. Another telling detail is the fact that her breasts were “large and limp.” She refused to wear underwire in her costumes because she thought it would cause cancer, so Kelly would cleverly push up the line of the dress, sometimes using a pocket handkerchief or corsage to mask the size of her bosom.

If transformation was the name of the game, Kelly succeeded not only with Davis’ portrayal in Now Voyager, but even earlier with Baby Face (1933), the rags to riches story of a fallen woman, played to perfection by Barbara Stanwyck. If he implicitly understood the historical period of a film, he also understood the timelessness of a certain look. The simplicity and beauty of Ingrid Bergman’s costumes in Casablanca (1942) could easily translate to contemporary times. And if spectacle was the order of the day, Kelly was a master. From his breakthrough with Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Busby Berkeley’s genius to his magnificent collaboration with Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff on An American in Paris (1951), he had few, if any, equals. The three designers shared an Oscar for An American in Paris, and Kelly went on to win his second for Les Girls (1957) and his third for the inimitable Some Like It Hot (1959). Jane Fonda weighs in on the irresistibility of Marilyn Monroe’s appearance as Sugar in the latter: “I’d go to see that movie just to see Marilyn in a particular scene, because she was so unbelievably voluptuous — and I’m not gay!”

It wouldn’t be out of line to question how the director came by such an intimate outpouring of information on her subject, particularly regarding Kelly’s travails behind the scenes. This was at least due in part to a most unusual revelation to which we are privy by production’s end, and one which this reviewer will keep secret. In Alexandra Spring’s interview with Armstrong in The Guardian, the director admits that “making a documentary is like writing a detective story. ‘You try to find out about this person and then get him right.’”

Did she get him right? Maybe that’s asking too much for the flamboyant and charismatic subject she has chosen. Maybe it’s enough just to sit back and enjoy the celluloid characters that Kelly was so much a part of in their making: Jezebel, Auntie Mame, Gypsy, Irma la Douce and Sugar for starters. One thing’s for sure, that’s a damn good legacy.

Rating: A

Video courtesy of sydfilmfest.

“Women He’s Undressed” is currently showing in select theaters. The film is rated PG and runs for 99 minutes. For more information about the film, you can visit the official website.