Gillian Armstrong’s 2006 documentary Unfolding Florence told the life and murder of Sydney wallpaper designer Florence Broadhurst. Lacking footage of her subject, she resorted to re-enactments and twee animations that detracted from the fascination of her subject.
That’s not a problem with Women He’s Undressed: Armstrong and writer Katherine Thomson are tackling the triple Oscar-winner Orry-Kelly, who grew up in Kiama, NSW and went on to design the costumes for hundreds of canonical Hollywood films including Casablanca, Some Like It Hot and An American in Paris.
This film is crammed with clips that are vivid evidence of Orry-Kelly’s greatness, supplemented with scenes of actor Darren Gilshenan as the designer, speaking words from his letters and recently discovered, unpublished autobiography. Talking heads such as Angela Lansbury and Jane Fonda fill in the gaps in a life story that included a tussle with the mob in Las Vegas and a hushed-up affair with one of the biggest male stars Hollywood ever produced.
Flamboyantly gay, the man who became Bette Davis’s favourite costume designer emerges as a flawed, workaholic visionary, an Australian movie great, although the film’s assertion that “nobody knows who he is” smacks of cultural cringe: anyone who has watched a few Golden Age classics knows his name, if not the delicious details of his Tinseltown history.