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Armond White

New Doc Botches the Career of Legendary Gay Hollywood Designer


If you don't know who Orry-Kelly was, you should.

Women He's Undressed, the new documentary about gay costume designer Orry George Kelly who left his Kiama, Australia, birthplace to become a legend during Hollywood's golden age, ends on a woman's breathless tribute: "He was a three-time Oscar winner and an Australian, he was also Cary Grant's boyfriend. Now come on, that's a trifecta, surely."

I have trouble with that "surely." Director Gillian Armstrong's gossip about Kelly's longtime sub-rosa liaison with Grant (and Grant's intimate relationship with Randolph Scott and Grant's cover-up marriages to several different women and Grant's betrayal of Kelly) pretends a trite gay knowingness. Hollywood Babble-on.Women-hes-undressed-2

Imagine a hindsight film about famous people who were or weren't closeted during a scary, dangerous, less-enlightened era that yet shows such ignorance concerning the complex depth of gay relations that it smirks about the shallow concept of "boyfriend." It's a trite ending for a biography that seemed to prove Kelly-Grant's love affair was far from wholesome. Surely Kelly and Grant deserve respect for their artistry, not for being ships that humped in the night.

That "trifecta" line isn't even camp. (For celebrity camp at its height, see Scott Thompson's Kids in the Hall skit where Anne Murray reports a kiki with James Baldwin and laments the sad reality of being "gay and Canadian.") The trashy celebrity mongering in Women He's Undressed lacks gay camp's rueful self-deprecation.

Armstrong's "feminist" sexual politics neglect true solidarity. Her priorities about career and personal achievement are screwed-up. She withholds TV clips of Kelly's Oscar wins (as if ashamed to reveal his actual person) and substitutes totally factitious dramatic reenactments of actor Darren Gilshenan portraying Kelly in fantasy sequences. I suspected Armstrong's camp credentials when an actor voicing Bette Davis (one of Kelly's longest and most successful Hollywood models) sounded more like Cate Blanchett.

Peter Greenaway's superb film about gay director Sergei Eisenstein, Eisenstein in Guanarjato, was more sexually frank and Morrissey's song "Christian Dior" ("sensually stroking the weave of a sleeve") movingly identified the personal and political risks of a legendary gay artist. But, here, there are few details about Kelly's art-life--his painting background, the Down-Under pride to modify his family heritage into the signature "Orry-Kelly" or specific insight into his most remarkable wardrobes. (Despite three Oscar wins, his greatest, most memorable designs were for his Bette Davis vehicles Jezebel, Now Voyager, The Letter--all created before there was an Oscar category for costume design.)

There are clips from 37 of the 285 films Orry-Kelly worked on. Deborah Nadoolman Landis is the most frequent commenter although the most pointed testimony comes from historian Larry McQueen describing the peekaboo Marilyn Monroe outfit from Some Like It Hot: "Everything shows except the things that were strategically beaded to not show."

What Orry-Kelly knew about the body, about sex, about the fickleness of weak, beautiful men like Cary Grant goes--regrettably--unexplored. (The film's title comes from the autobiographic memoir Women I've Undressed which indicates Kelly's decision to be remembered for his artistry.) The Golden Age movie clips remain truly fabulous and the final, brief images of an aged Orry-Kelly are touching because he's so human yet unknown. Gossipy, trivial and unrevealing, Women He's Undressed is the wrong kind of trifecta.

Purchase Women He's Undressed here.

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Armond White