Interview: Women He’s Undressed Director Gillian Armstrong

On costume designer Orry-Kelly, the subject of her new documentary.

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One of Australia’s best known filmmakers, Gillian Armstrong, has been one of the most respected women in her field since making 1979’s unapologetically feminist period film, My Brilliant Career. Along with praise for Armstrong and her star, then-newcomer Judy Davis, the film earned an Oscar nomination for best costume design. Since then, Armstrong has made a career out of telling stories about modern, intelligent, complicated women from the past in films such as Little Women and Oscar and Lucinda, both of which also earned nominations for costume designs.

Her love for using detailed costumes to help create characters made her a perfect choice to tell the story of one of Hollywood’s greatest costume designers, fellow Australian Orry-Kelly, in Women He’s Undressed. Winner of three Oscars himself for costume designs (An American in Paris, Les Girls, and Some Like it Hot), Kelly was also responsible for dressing some of Hollywod’s greatest icons, including Rosalind Russell, Deanna Durbin, Ingrid Bergman, Kay Francis, and most significantly, his muse, Bette Davis. With more than 300 credits, Kelly’s work is deserving of a second look all on its own. But his personal life, as a gay man during Hollywood’s “Golden Age” who lived a relatively open life (considering the time period) also makes up a large part of Armstrong’s narrative, which includes a twist ending (so stick around). The movie is making the rounds at film festivals currently, including New York Doc Fest (this Sunday).

I spoke with Armstrong at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival about discovering Orry-Kelly, his remarkable career, and the importance she places on costumes as a filmmaker.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): I was surprised by the look of the film, because while all your films have been beautiful, this movie looks completely different from your other. I was caught off guard by just how bright and almost Technicolor the movie looks. What was the cinematic approach you wanted to achieve with this movie?

Armstrong: We knew that we were going to be cutting the abstract, dramatizations between clips of the film. So I thought that because Orry-Kelly’s work on this films was so graphic and strong, the dramatizations had to be very strong and vivid as well. And I needed to tie his period working on black and white films and his color films. And I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t want to have realistic reenactments, with accurate sets and other actors in the scenes, so I thought the best approach was to take a very abstract approach. But it was certainly a risk, because the film is such a composition of many different styles, including the interviews which also had to be tied together. And those interviews were very difficult because we had to shoot them in so many different locations. I shot Angela Lansbury’s in Australia, but also filmed in New York and California.

TMS: Were the monologues in the reenactments based on Orry’s writings?

Armstrong: They were a mix of statements he’d made in articles and interviews, bits from his letters, and his writings. But Katherine Thomson, who researched and wrote the film and essentially became Orry, did such a wonderful job that when we watched the film together, we were both like “did you write that or did Orry say that?” Which was good. There were some lines, like “keep your bowels open so you don’t get appendicitis” which is absolutely taken directly from his mother, and it was something his mother wrote at the end of every letter. So there were things we just took word for word. We found a lot of letters in the New York Public Library to people like Marion Davis and Cole Porter. I couldn’t help thinking, “what will we do in 60 years? We don’t write letters anymore, we just write emails, and no one saves those.” Although looking at the documentary Amy, I supposed we do have home movies still, but I’m worried for future historians, because if you’re significant in any area, you have to start writing things down.

TMS: How did you first learn about Orry?

Armstrong: My producing partner, Damien Parer, is the son of the first Australian to win an Oscar. He won for a documentary called Kokoda, in 1945. He was a war correspondent, and died during the war in Japan, so Damien grew up without knowing his father but was named after him and sort of followed him into the business, when he became a producer. And he was researching other Australians who had won Oscars and came across Orry’s name, who had won the most Oscars of any Australian. And when I Googled him, he saw his credits which include Some Like it Hot and An American in Paris, and Casablanca, and I thought “this guy deserves a film.” And a mutual friend suggested me to Damien, because I had done a documentary Florence Broadhurst, the wallpaper designer who was also a con-artist that had been murdered. And my friend knows I like to make films about artist. But my first reaction was “who is Orry-Kelly?” So I read about him and I was shamed for not knowing who he was, because I’d of course seen all those movies, but never noticed his name in the credits. And I brought Katherine Thomson along with me on this, because she had worked on that other documentary and helped me research and write that film. We spent two years researching the film. And the thing all the historians said was, “there is a rumor that he wrote a memoir, but it’s been missing.” And Katherine and I thought, “great, we’ll find it.” And spent two years searching, but just couldn’t find it anywhere, and finally we had to write the script ourselves, but by then we’d done enough research and interviews with people who knew him.

TMS: A big section of the film involves Orry’s relationship with Cary Grant, and their very sad split. Because that aspect of Grant’s life has always been something very hushed and rumored about, were you concerned about including information about a personal relationship the other party clearly tried to keep quiet?

Armstrong: The best information we found didn’t come from Orry’s writing about Cary, but from interviews with people who knew them both. When I asked Scotty Bowers, who has been behind the scenes of everyone’s love lives in Hollywood, he knew them and had been very close to Orry, who actually introduced Scotty to Hollywood while he was still in the service. And then later in his life, Scotty became a sort of fixer to the stars. So to hear it from the horse’s mouth was very important. And he’s said “I’ve slept with Randolph Scott, I know what I’m talking about. Of course Orry and Cary had been together.”

TMS: How did you find the people who didn’t just have a connection to Orry’s films or know about costume design, but would be able to provide intimate and personal information about Orry?

Armstrong: In the beginning, we went through a list of all the actors that he had dressed and were still alive. And it was amazing to realize that he had worked from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. And someone like Kay Francis, who he dressed so often, is long gone. But Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury, who he dressed only once, are both still alive. And Jean Mathison, who was Billy Haines assistant, was any easy choice, because she had literally written the book on Haines and ended up running his company. And once we spoke to Jean, she told us about other people we should speak with. And it seemed that once we found one, we would find another. And it took some time to talk Jane Fonda into being in the film, because I know from reading her biography that she wasn’t very happy with those early films. But she did three films with Orry, so I thought “she must have liked him,” only to learn that she wasn’t in the position to choose her costume designer at that point in her career. And she insisted that she wouldn’t have much to say and I think we guaranteed her that she would be in and out in 20 minutes, but once she got going, all these memories flooded back.

TMS: And I can understand why she might not be fond of those films, but there is no denying how beautiful she looks in them.

Armstrong: Absolutely, and that was what I told her, that she looked stunning in those films. And I meant it.

TMS: And it was true of Angela Lansbury, who is so beautiful and elegant in that film.

Armstrong: Well, the thing with Angela was she was touring in Driving Ms. Daisy in Australia at the time, so she was the very first person we approached. And we had to go to Screen Australia to get funding to shoot her interview. But I met her in Sydney, and she said “it was so long ago and I probably don’t even remember that much. I had a lot of things going on at the time.” But then she said “But you know, we all knew how famous he was.” And that was all I needed her to say on camera. You saying how famous he is says, and the audience understands. And her manager was very helpful, because he was a big fan of My Brilliant Career. So by the time we got the crew together and filmed her in Adelaide, she was such a sweetheart. I sent her a copy of the film to refresh her memory, and even though she was in the middle of doing a play, she watched the film and arrived with a handful of notes. And it turns out, she’d also looked at a number of the Bette Davis films as well, and that’s why she’s all over that part of the film as well. I said, “You’re a spokesperson on Bette now” because she had such wonderful insights about her as well.

TMS: It was interesting that most of the women he became known for dressing, had certain similarities. Most of them were known for being opinionated, they were rarely put into the sex pot category, with the exception of Marilyn Monroe. Did you notice a type of star that Orry’s style fit best?

Armstrong: He was drawn to the same thing most directors are drawn to I think. He liked actresses who were smart and weren’t vein and were willing to be brave. Women who were interested in telling a story in an authentic way, and being part of the process. And I think that is why he and Bette became so close, and she became his muse. Most designers at that time, if they were assigned to do a 1800s story, would still use 1930s hair and make-up. And Bette was really ahead of her time in wanting to be authentic. And Orry was a supporter of that approach too. They fought the battles together. And I think that because Orry came from an acting background, rather than a fashion background, the story and character was everything to him. And that was true of Bette as well. At the same time, if the part required it, he could make her look beautiful. But they agreed that her early movie, Fashions of 1934, when she’s really bleach blonde and made up, was not good for her career. I think they were a fantastic team. Later on, with Rosalind Russell, the thing they shared was this fantastic sense of humor. So in Auntie Mame, her costumes are out there, but they aren’t sending her up. The costumes are within the character. I think his two greatest strengths was that he could be very simple and make it about the authenticity of the characters, but he also had a sense of humor and when required, his clothing could have great wit.

TMS: I know that he did the gowns for the men in Some Like It Hot, but would he also dress the male actors in the films he did at Warner Bros?

Armstrong: He did. In the early days, credit cards would almost always just read “gowns by.” But reading some of Bette Davis’ interviews, she said that Orry was a bit of a control freak and would dress the men as well. Sometimes the men would just show up in their two suits, but he was always very involved with dressing the men, and how the extras looked. He wanted the extras to look right for the story and be accurate to the time and place. If the extras should be poor and dirty, you have to make them look like that, and that was rarely thought about in the 1930s.

TMS: During Orry’s reenactments, he pretty much wears the same suit throughout. How did you pick his suit?

Armstrong: We wanted to make it seem timeless. Early on, when he’s leaving in the boat and first in Sydney, we had a period suit from the early 1900s. But for the rest of it, we decided we wouldn’t have him keep changing once he got to America. There was a great photo of Orry at a dinner party in the 1930s, wearing a white suit. And I think that is when he was his most handsome. So we chose this off-white, almost creamy suit. And we considered a double breasted suit, but ended up deciding on the simpler one, because it could span the 1930s to the 60s.

TMS: Ann Roth says something interesting in the film, that the costume is what helps an actor disappear into the character. In your experience directing actors, what do costumes add to the performance?

Armstrong: There are some actors who have such a strong personality, which will come through in everything they do, and some actors who disappear and transform in every film they do. And there are certain parts of a person which can never truly disappear, because it is just part of who they are as a person. But I remember the day, after doing all the rehearsals for Little Women, and Winona Ryder had really short hair at the time. And I remember the day the wig arrived, and when she put the wig on with her costume was the day she became Jo.

TMS: Are you a director who likes researching and scrutinizing costumes?

Armstrong: I’m a perfectionist when it comes to costumes. I’m a perfectionist when choosing the right costume designer, and I think it is essential to get every detail right. I think that you get a subliminal message about the character and where they are in time. And people don’t even realize it when they are watching, but they know when it’s false. I’m absolutely rigid about it. For example, we don’t walk around in new clothes all the time, we don’t walk around in the latest fashions, so even if you are shooting a film that takes place in 2015, no one should be walking around in the latest fashions. Often times we hang onto bits and pieces from other eras. All those decisions about what a character wears says so much about who they are. And audiences read it and get it. But specifically with period films, even when I did My Brilliant Career, it was fashionable with the hair and make-up and undergarments to be of the era you were filming in, not the era you were depicting. But I absolutely believe that if you want the actor to look like someone from that time, they must have the exact, perhaps hideous, elements from that time. A corset will make a woman sit and walk differently from the way they do now, and it all helps to make the world seem believable.

TMS: And then you have the issue of how much a character is conforming to society’s fashion rules. Jo in Little Women doesn’t want to conform to the rules and that is seen in how she dressed, compared to how her sisters dressed.

Armstrong: Right. She was a woman who would throw off her hat and gloves and run outside, getting her dress dirty. And that was somewhat true of Judy Davis’s character in My Brilliant Career as well.

TMS: Ann Roth asks you in the film why you are making the movie, is it just because he’s from Australia? As a filmmaker, do you have a sense of national pride that draws you to these stories?

Armstrong: I suppose that was part of my passion about Orry, because I am also a filmmaker who traveled to America and had a career in Hollywood. I know what a huge thing it must have been for him to have come to Hollywood from Australia, especially then. But, I think Orry is probably better known in America than he is in Australia. And I thought, we sing the praises of our cricket and football stars, we should appreciate those from our own country in the arts as well. And in his area, Orry was one of the top three designers of all time. So yeah, I felt a bit of national pride.

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