Intimate portraits of women have been Gillian Armstrong’s bread and butter for decades. From her debut feature My Beautiful Career (now a classic of Australian cinema) and the iconic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women, to her documentary series that revisits three Australian women throughout their lives (Smokes and Lollies (1976); Fourteen's Good, Eighteen's Better (1981);Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces (1988); Not Fourteen Again (1996); and Love, Lust & Lies (2010)) her gaze has rarely strayed far from innately female studies of girls, women and the relationships between them.
Her new documentary, Women He’s Undressed, is a change of pace for the director. It chronicles the life story of Orry-Kelly, the late Australian costume designer whose work both set the standard for, and epitomised, the glamour and spectacle of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Despite being Bette Davis’s longtime costumer, Cary Grant’s roommate and one of Australia’s most prolific Oscar winners, Orry-Kelly has been all but forgotten in film history. Here, Gillian talks about the process of unearthing Orry’s story and bringing it to the screen, four decades after he passed away.
I'd never heard of him before. The whole idea was really my producer's, Damien Parer Jr. His father actually won Australia's very first Oscar for a war film in 1945. So Damien, who grew up without his father, was always interested in Australians who won Academy Awards. He was researching and came across this name, Orry-Kelly, and saw that he had three Academy Awards. At that time, a few years ago, it was the most awards any Australian had. He looked up what awards he won for, in costume design, and saw Some Like it Hot, American in Paris and Les Girls. And then he looked at the rest of his work and was gobsmacked that these iconic films, that we've all grown up with and seen, were designed by an Australian that everyone had forgotten.
He'd been trying to make a documentary about Orry for a number of years, and then a mutual friend of ours said, "Why don't you approach Gill? She’s interested in art and design, and she did a documentary about Florence Broadhurst." So Damien sent me the outline and I had the same response—"Who is this guy?"—and then I looked up the films and I go, "Oh my god! An Australin designed Casablanca?! And Irma la Douce and Auntie Mame and all these Busby Berkeley films and 42nd Street!?" So I was hooked and thought there definitely had to be a story in there about this man and his extraordinary work.
Early on, when we first started researching, the American historians that we contacted said to us, "Have you heard? There was a rumour that he wrote this memoir!" They'd never been able to find it and part of the rumour is that maybe it was sent back to Australia to his nieces. So we started this huge search. We'd given up on trying to find it—we'd been on public radio and had articles in papers and so on—and by then we'd written a script and found these wonderful people that knew Orry, we'd found letters he had written. We basically were ready to go and make this film with or without the memoir.
We're trying to do a film about the life and work of someone who died in 1964 and who didn't really have any family who could talk, and most of the actors that he had worked with had died. It was basically, in the end, both a huge detective story and an academic thesis.
To understand a person, you first have to understand the world they lived in. I read biographies about Jack Warner, the Warner Studios, and the Golden Age of Hollywood; I read three biographies on Bette Davis, I read two biographies on Jane Fonda before I interviewed her, and Henry Fonda. So I could put [Orry] in that world and understand. There was so much misinformation, especially on the web, about Orry. Even just little things where someone had said, "He's outrageous and offended everybody," and I thought, Well, maybe he's just Australian and had a good sense of humour that they didn't get. There was something else in one of the history books that said he didn't get along with Jack Warner and was fired all the time. And I thought, That's interesting, because he's best friends with Jack's wife, and it seems like he was there for dinner and parties a lot. Then I read Jack Warner's biography and find out that Jack was infamous for this; he fired, like, 20 people a day! (In the end, people just turned up back to work the next day.) So you've got to put these things in perspective. That's the fun thing about going back and putting the pieces together.
Obviously, for me, it was great fun because I was finding out the behind the scenes stuff about Hollywood at that time. In some ways, things are different, but in many ways they’re still the same: We found, in the Academy library, all the memos and paperwork Warner kept. You can see all the comments about Ingrid Bergman's costumes in Casablanca: 'the shoes are too big'. And I thought, well, none of that's changed: you still get all the executives worrying about your actor and how they look on screen.
We had done a huge amount of research, we had found quotes of Bette Davis, we found all sorts of little quotes from Orry, and we found letters—which were such a wonderful source. Orry wrote letters to Hedda Hopper and George Cukor and Marion Davies, and when they died [the letters] were collected and have gone into art libraries. We also found in the Marion Davies letters that Orry had sent two chapters from this memoir—that's how we knew that it did exist—where he'd said, "I want you to read the two chapters on you." Then he spoke really optimistically—"It's coming on really well," and, "looks like I've got a publisher," and so on—so we knew it was true; he had been writing one.
Orry came back [to Australia] to visit his mother and he did interviews. He was fairly famous here in the '30s and '40s; there were always stories about "our" Orry that asked him what Bette Davis was really like. It was like, you know, someone [now] interviewing Hugh Jackman. In the local paper, for any film he'd designed, it would say "costumes by our Orry-Kelly". Australia knew who he was. In those interviews, we also got a sense of his voice. He was self-deprecating, you could tell. We'd really created quite a strong sense of him.
It was wonderful to talk to Ann Roth who, as a junior designer, worked with Orry. It was Ann who told us that Orry had been in rehab. We had no idea about that; people don't say that sort of thing in an interview. He talked about giving up the booze, fighting the booze, at different times. So finding those older people who either were friends or workmates was really the key to making the film.
We had given up looking for the manuscript; we had tried absolutely everywhere. But we never thought, We're not going to make the movie if we don't find the memoir; there are a million biographies of people who don't write memoirs. And, you know, when we write about ourselves, how truthful are we, really? We have a different perspective than people who see us from outside. Sometimes it can be that we're blind to something about ourselves, sometimes it can be that we're humble about ourselves.
The best information that we got in the film was from Scotty Bowers—the most exciting moment for me was when we finally got him. He was a "fixer", which is kind of like an unpaid pimp. In the first chapter of Scotty's book, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, he's picked up by a gentleman with an English accent in a large green Bentley. That was Orry! He started Scotty's whole career of being the sexual fixer of the stars of Hollywood. When I got Scotty's phone number and I spoke to him. I said, "We're researching for a film about Orry-Kelly," and he said, "Oh! Just to hear his name…he was such a gentleman, such a wonderful man."
Orry was very social and had his parties and dinner parties and Scotty said, "Whenever we were there, he was working; he was drawing all the time." When we did the interview with Scotty—who is 90, by the way—he came in with some Orry drawings; he said Orry would do drawings and then throw them in the bin! Hearing Barbara Warner Howard—it was her mother, Ann Warner, who was Orry's closest friend and with him when he died—say, "I can still hear my mother's laughter when I was a little girl and I came in from the garden and Orry was there." It was those actual witnesses that gave me the great insights into him.
In the early stages of doing research for the documentary, I did say to the producer, "I don't know how much of a story there is, this might just be an hour long." After a year and a half of research, and all the wonderful people and letters we'd found, we knew that this was a rich life with many layers. The thing that Katherine Thomsom, the film's writer, and I felt was that what we liked about him was his sense of integrity; we could see that he was a fighter and that he stood up for what he believed in. The other costume designers that headed studios were forced to have these sham marriages, and Orry wouldn't bow to that. He fought for his art, as well; there would've always been a lot of pressure on him to over-glamourise people and make the star just look pretty, and I admire that it was character that mattered to him. He also was very smart and knew that subtle design is generally more important than anything else; anyone can do a million ruffles, but to actually create a design where you look into Bette Davis's eyes is the most important thing.