Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fashion, Hollywood and Homosexuality in Gillian Armstong's WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED

If the name Orry-Kelly means nothing to you, you're either young, straight, or simply uninterested in the heyday of Hollywood and its famous fashion designers. TrustMovies has never been all that interested in fashion (he often quite literally loathes it), but he is bi- and has had a hard-on for Hollywood since around the age of two (when he ran away from home and off to a "picture show," as he then called the movies). Although he didn't realize it until he saw the film under consideration here, he's also been a huge fan of Orry-Kelly's work. Those memorable gowns from Les Girls, above, are in fact long-time favorites of his (the movie may be second-rate, but its fashions are absolutely first-).

The new documentary about Orry-Kelly, WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED has been directed by Gillian Armstrong (shown above, at right, with multi-Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin) and written by Katherine Thomson, both of them Australian, as was Orry-Kelly himself (who, for purposes of space and repetition, will henceforth be referred to as O-K). What these two have given us is really a kind of celebration of O-K: his life, work, sexuality and in particular his ability to live a relatively uncloseted life in tinseltown long before many other gay men cared to and/or were able to do anything like this.

Incredible as it seems, O-K costumed some 301 movies between the years of 1930 and 1963. And many of these were amazing, pivotal works whose costumes were vital to the films, and, as one of the many fascinating interviewees points out, they look as good, and almost as "modern," today as they did back then. O-K clothed some of Hollywood biggest stars -- from Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell to Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine -- and most of them loved him and his work. One of the joys of this lovely documentary is how well it makes us understand what and how the designer was doing, why it was important and especially why it worked so well. You'll come away from the movie with a new (maybe renewed) sense of the importance of fashion to films.

The movie also captures this Hollywood era in spades, with particular emphasis on what it was like to be gay in Hollywood from the 30s into the 50s and early 60s (O-K died in 1964). We get a good sense of the man's history, and the filmmakers choose to do this via some charming and intelligent re-enactments using actors in the roles of O-K (a sly, sweet job by Darren Gilshenan, above, as the adult O-K, and Louis Alexander, below, as the younger version),  his mother (Deborah Kennedy), and even briefly his first and perhaps greatest love, a fellow named Archie Leach (known to you all as Cary Grant and played in this film by Nathaniel Middleton).

Based in good part on O-K's unpublished memoirs -- which, according to Wikipedia, were discovered in the care of a relative after the man's death -- the film does full justice to the designer's humor, panache, style and wit, regarding both his work and his attitudes. I suspect he would be pretty damned pleased with this funny and charming documentary -- in which some very good and still-living costume designers, along with actors like Jane Fonda, who worked with the man a few times in her early career, talk about him fondly and with great appreciation.

Ms Armstrong, whom many of you still remember for My Brilliant Career) does a fine job of keeping all this moving and snappy so that interest does not lag for a moment. And her interweaving of the reenactments with historical footage and scenes from various film makes her documentary non-stop eye-opening and appealing.

The movie is a fine appreciation of a man and his time in a town that was anything but welcoming of his kind -- and yet in which he managed to make a place and a name for himself. This is a wonderful story, and -- despite a couple of odd fact mistakes -- I am so glad we are now able to see it. (That's a photo of the real Orry-Kelly, at left.)

From Wolf Releasing and running 99 minutes, Women He's Undressed opens tomorrow, Friday, July 29, in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema for a week's run, after which it hits home video on Tuesday, August 9 -- for purchase or rental.

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