(The text of this review originally appeared at Way Too Indie.)
Ask a random sampling of movie buffs to name a famous costume designer and the first response will most likely be Edith Head, and rightfully so. With 35 Oscar nominations to her name (eight of which went on to win), Head is synonymous with high-calibre movie fashion. Ask for additional names, and the hardcore film fans will reveal themselves, offering names like Irene Sharaff, Charles LeMaire, and Milena Canonero. Another designer they might mention is Orry-Kelly, son of Australia, winner of Academy Awards, and a man whose story is as fascinating as they come. That story is told to remarkable effect by filmmaker Gillian Armstrong in her documentary, Women He’s Undressed.
The linear bio starts with the boyhood days of Orry George Kelly, the son of a tailor from Kiama, New South Wales, Australia. Those early days reveal two key things that will forever shape Kelly’s career and life: his natural and immense artistic flare, and his homosexuality. Living in a land during a time when the latter was not tolerated, Kelly abandons the banking career he had begun and departs Australia in 1922 to set sail for America. In his early years in New York City, Kelly makes his bones as an artist and costumer for Broadway productions. It’s also during this time he begins a romantic relationship with Archie Leach, a struggling (but unspeakably handsome) actor who eventually goes on to change his name to Cary Grant.
The two make it to Hollywood together, but where their individual careers began to thrive, their relationship died. Cary Grant goes on to be, well, Cary Grant, while Orry-Kelly goes on to costume some of Hollywood’s greatest stars (Bette Davis-calibre) in over 280 films (including a little picture called Casablanca), winning three Oscars in the process.
There is some deft storytelling from Gillian Armstrong in Women He’s Undressed. This isn’t just another biopic about a kid from the middle of nowhere making it big in showbiz, nor is it just some revelation about another unsung Hollywood behind-the-scenes great, nor is it just a name-dropping clip reel of Hollywood history. It’s actually all of these things and more. And it’s dazzling.
Women He’s Undressed might struggle to get out of the gate of his childhood, but during those early minutes of the film, his homosexuality is established. This is key not only because it makes him who he is, but because the position and evolution of the entertainment industry (somewhat Broadway, mostly Hollywood) as it relates to same-sex relationships has considerable consequences. The greater narrative then radiates from Orry-Kelly: he’s gay, others in Hollywood are gay, here is how Hollywood handled gay. (The approach towards his sexual orientation, by the way, is never disrespectful, nor does it ever pander.)
Bringing Archie Leach/Cary Grant into the story might sound scandalous (and it is), but it is also critical to the designer’s tale in that: (a) Leach/Grant is a major love of Orry-Kelly’s life, and (b) the actor is responsible for Orry-Kelly making it to Hollywood. This isn’t just a kiss-and-tell; Leach/Grant has real purpose to who Orry-Kelly is as a person and as a costume designer.
Once the story moves inside Hollywood’s gates, Armstrong really shows what she’s made of as a documentarian.
The Orry-Kelly thread about his homosexuality turns into the fabric of a Hollywood history lesson. Like the same-sex narrative, the Hollywood history narrative radiates from Orry-Kelly, puts context around the time and the business, then returns to put Orry-Kelly into history’s context and vice versa.
The history radiates to the groundbreaking work that Busby Berkley did and then brings it back to Orry-Kelly’s equally impressive costumes for the filmmaker’s pictures. The history radiates to the tawdriness of pre-code films and crosses over to the more subdued post-code films, using Orry-Kelly as a bridge between the two eras and focusing on what he did as a costumer during both eras (including what he got away with, post-code). Then to some of the titans of the times: Bette Davis, Jack Warner, William Randolph Hearst, Marilyn Monroe—and his relationships with all of them. And of course, the story then proceeds to Cary Grant. The documentary even finds its way back to Australia from time to time.
By the time the story is over, Orry-Kelly is not just another Hollywood luminary—he’s forever one with that town and its history.
Yet for all its narrative might, some of the storytelling devices employed fall terribly flat. Armstrong opts to cast people to play Orry-Kelly and his mother, and then work them into the story for narration, commentary, even humor. It’s all so silly, especially in the earliest days, which at times are downright cartoonish. I think I get what Armstrong is trying do—inject elements of stage and film into these portions as representations of the two branches of entertainment where Orry-Kelly was at his best. It just feels so gimmicky, and never more so than when the intricate pattern Armstrong weaves suddenly gets disrupted. Also feeling manufactured are quotes from celebrities as voiced by other actors. It’s intrusive and too cute by half, and it’s all to the detriment of the overall product.
It wouldn’t be a documentary without some talking heads, and it’s refreshing to see some living legends who worked with Orry-Kelly offer their thoughts. The most recognizable are critic/historian Leonard Maltin, actress Angela Lansbury, and actress Jane Fonda. (Hearing Fonda confess to what she would have liked to have done to a certain part of Marilyn Monroe’s anatomy is worth the price of admission.) These celebs, and other contributors, are used in excellent measure. Oddly enough, Orry-Kelly himself is only ever seen (via photos) at the end of the film.
Orry-Kelly’s formidable combination of history, skill, attitude, and pizzaz creates a mighty base for Armstrong to build upon, and build she does, using numerous storytelling devices and a whip-smart narrative. Women He’s Undressed isn’t always perfect, but it’s riveting from start to finish.
Women He’s Undressed debuts August 9, 2016 across all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and WolfeOnDemand.com, and will also be available same date on DVD via Wolfe Video and many major retailers. The film will also open theatrically on July 29 in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood.
Gender inequality in filmmaking is a critical issue. To help bring it to light at a local level, in September 2015, with generous help from my local theater, I programmed and hosted the three-day, 10-film Directed By Women Film Festival. The event featured screenings of films ranging from Oscar-winning history-makers (Kathryn Bigelow‘s The Hurt Locker) to independent foreign docs (Nisha Pahuja‘s The World Before Her), and I even got to host a Q&A with director/writer/star of She Lights Up Well, Joyce Wu. It was an amazing experience and I would show all 10 films again tomorrow if I had the chance. Well, I would show nine of the 10 tomorrow. One of them would need to be replaced with Parched, a stunning Indian drama from producer/writer/director Leena Yadav, that tells an amazing tale of four women who have more in common .
Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), now in her early 30s, was made a teenage widow not long after she was made a teenage bride. She lives in a rural Indian town with her son, Gulab (Riddhi Sen), whose marriage she has arranged with the parents of his 15-year-old bride-to-be, Janaki (Lehar Khan). On their wedding day – the day they also meet for the first time – Janaki reveals that the long-flowing hair she once had … hair that was, for lack of a better word, a selling point in the marriage arrangement – had been hacked off as a result of head lice. Gulab, already reluctant to enter a forced marriage, is outraged and embarrassed by Janaki’s appearance, and rather than spend their early wedded days together, Gulab instead leaves his child bride at home and goes drinking and whoring with his buddies.
Rani’s best friend, Lajjo (Radhika Apte), is having problems of her own at home. What she masks with her bubbly personality is the heartache and humiliation she suffers because she cannot bear children. She is part of a culture that demands sons and tolerates daughters, and she can provide neither. Rounding out this quartet of troubled ladies is Bijli (Surveen Chawla). A childhood friend of Rani, Bijli is now an exotic singer/dancer and prostitute of considerable reputation. She is lusted after by men, and loathed by women, and when she and her traveling troupe come to town, the course of the lives of these four women drastically change.
Beyond the evolution of these four characters, Parched presents a scathing look at the misogyny found so prevalent in rural India. The film opens with a young woman from Rani’s village begging the elders to free her from her arranged marriage because of the abuse she suffers (examples of which are heart-wrenchingly recounted). From there, each of the four protagonists are repeated victims of verbal and physical abuse, as well as general oppression, at the hands of men – abuse and oppression that present themselves as traditions. Throughout the film, from that early scene and straight through to a staggering reveal late in the picture, Yadav reminds the viewer of how commonplace this atrocious mentality is, and how Indian women suffer as a result. As it is woven through a dramatic narrative, it never comes off as preachy, but the drama makes it no less impactful.
Yadav even goes out of her way (sometimes a little too far), to illustrate how misogyny radiates against men who don’t fall in line with the village’s cultural mores and allow women to do manly things like get an education.
Yet for as shocking as the cultural show-and-tell is, the film wouldn’t work if the four protagonists weren’t such strong characters. Not only is there a group dynamic they need to navigate through (no easy task considering two women are related by arranged marriage and one is a prostitute), they each are haunted and must wrestle with those forces.
The young bride is haunted by rejection. Imagine being 15 years old, having your youth stolen from you, and being bought and paid for, only to be patently shunned by the man who is supposed to be your husband … because of your hair.
Lajjo is haunted by failure. Yes, her near-inexhaustible cheerfulness, coupled with how she lives in a man’s world but certainly understands the value women bring, are signs of happiness, which can be interpreted as personal success. But she is still of an age where not only cultural norms matter, but so do motherly instincts. That she is unable to bear a child becomes almost too much to bear.
Rani, who has already had to bear the burden of being a widow fore half her life, also struggles with culture and motherhood. For as devout as she may be in her faith and in her heritage, and for as loving as she may be as a mother, the monster her son becomes … a monster she helped create by accepting and promoting the skewed cultural norms … has her reconsidering what is most important in life.
As for Bijli, she is haunted by her past, her present, and her future. Her past haunts her as she shunned tradition and chose a life of stripping and prostitution. She may be a success, but the irony is by choosing the field she chose, she traded in one type of misogyny for another. Her present is haunted by a younger dancer ready to claim the spotlight, and her future has nothing but older age in store for her. The other three women have more at stake, I think, but Bijli’s story was so compelling in its complexity.
In addition to terrific writing and directing from Yadav, as well as gorgeous lens work from Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic, 1997), each actress brings a high level of talent and execution to their roles. The collective and collaborative work done here is truly a joy.
There is a lot … A LOT … going on in Parched, but never so much that Leena Yadav can’t handle it with skilled deftness. This is a woman filmmaker ready to be the next big thing.