Orry-Kelly was a star. He designed gowns for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Ginger Rogers in a slew of musicals, and Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot. He won three Oscars for his troubles, long before Hollywood’s love affair with Nicole Kidman, Heath Ledger or Eric Bana. But for many years, one of our biggest Hollywood exports went uncelebrated.
But at last, his reputation his undergoing a revival. First, there was Gillian Armstrong’s wonderfully flamboyant documentary, Women He’s Undressed. Now, ACMI’s Dressing Hollywood, a retrospective exhibition including letters, drawings, paintings, and of course, clothes, designed, made and sometimes hand-painted by the man himself. It’s been pulled together from a variety of different places, including the Warner Brothers archive and private collectors. Orry-Kelly has been forgotten to the point that one collector was able to buy genuine items on the cheap from eBay.
But how did he slip out of public awareness?
Ulanda Blair, curator of the show, believes it’s because costume design just wasn’t considered worth celebrating in the early days of filmmaking.
“For the first 19 years of the Academy Awards, they didn’t award one for costume design,” says Blair. “Orry-Kelly had worked on 269 films by then.”
He was also openly gay in an increasingly puritan environment, and refused to compromise his identity for the sake of his career. Evidence of the more colourful aspects of his life are all on display, too, from his small-town childhood in Kiama, NSW to his flirtation with the underbellies of Sydney and New York, and a rumored hushed-up love affair with Cary Grant.
Costume might not be the first thing you notice in a film. “That’s probably a good thing,” says Blair. He never intended his work to distract the viewer. But seeing his work together at ACMI this week, his versatility shines. “From spectacular, frivolous musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 to grittier films like The Maltese Falcon, the diversity is amazing,” says Blair.
While his rivals were all about extravagant fashion statements, Blair says Orry-Kelly’s work was successful precisely for not announcing itself. It was fitted not just to the actor, but to the character. “Orry was a very careful script analyst,” says Blair. “He got under the skin of the characters and that’s what ensured his success.”
“Mr Kelly understands emotion,” actress Kay Francis is quoted as saying in Women He’s Undressed. “When I’m playing a big scene, trying to kill my boyfriend, I need something plain. Not dramatic.”
And if Women He’s Undressed and ACMI’s Dressing Hollywood are anything to go by, Orry-Kelly knew when to be plain. And he knew when to be flamboyantly, eye-grabbingly dramatic.