Gillian Armstrong didn’t just open the door for female directors, she ripped it right off the hinges.
With her 1979 debut, My Brilliant Career, Armstrong became the first Australian woman to direct a feature film in over 50 years. My Brilliant Career then went on to earn Armstrong heaps of praise, including a nomination for Cannes’ much-coveted Palme d’Or. Armstrong’s international recognition helped usher in the Australian New Wave. Since that time, she has fostered up and coming talent (Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett), earned numerous awards and nominations (AFIs, Oscars), and directed films that resonate with audiences long after their theatrical runs (Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda).
Armstrong’s latest film, a documentary titled, Women He’s Undressed, shines a spotlight on the life of fellow Australian, Orry-Kelly. Kelly, an openly gay man during the height of Hollywood’s golden age, earned a reputation as the industry’s premiere costume designer (he racked up three Academy Awards throughout his career). Armstrong spent two and a half years piecing together Kelly’s intricate story. The result is a rousing trip through a bygone era, which will inform viewers just as much as it entertains them.
I caught up with Gillian Armstrong during a break in her busy schedule. We discussed Hollywood’s golden days, falling way-down research rabbit holes, and how Bette Davis became Kelly’s on-set co-conspirator.
Who Is Orry-Kelly?
Armstrong didn’t know who Kelly was before her producer pitched her the project. Even then, she wasn’t sure if Kelly’s story was large enough to carry a feature film. “It wasn’t until we (the film’s writer Katherine Thomson) got further, got really into finding out who he was and what his personal story was, that we moved from thinking, this could be an hour film about a man and his work to realizing that there was a much more complicated journey,” she told me.
Kelly’s personal life and career were each fascinating in their own right. Armstrong would struggle to pack it all into a 99-minute film. “The amount of work he’s done was also extraordinary,” she added. For her film, Armstrong had the unenviable task of narrowing down Kelly’s 300 film resume — including Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, and Les Girls — to a few movies that best represent him. “So to really choose the top, I think we chose, finally about 20-25 films,” she said. Throw in Kelly’s celebrity relationships — Bette Davis and Cary Grant to name a few — and his battles with drinking and you have what Armstrong describes as, “A very rich story.”
With three Oscar wins and a wealth of celebrity friends, Kelly was a rockstar costume designer, but a costume designer none the less. Though he could party it up with the best of them, Kelly wasn’t a threat to steal headlines away from the Hollywood royalty he rubbed shoulders with. “The whole point of the film, I suppose, is costume designers — people behind the scenes — are not the ones who are photographed or filmed or interviewed,” Armstrong told me. “He had died in ’64 so there weren’t very many people alive who still knew him and had memories of him.” Armstrong tracked down four people who knew Kelly; two of whom Kelly dressed early in their careers: Angela Lansbury and Jane Fonda. It speaks volumes about Kelly that over fifty years later, both women took time out of their hectic schedules to discuss the man and his talents.
While researching, Armstrong encountered rumors about a potential Orry-Kelly goldmine: Kelly’s secret memoir. “We heard at the very beginning, there was a rumor that he [Kelly] had written a memoir, but no one, none of the costume historians in America have ever been able to find it,” Armstrong said. “There was a lot of detective work to do. And I have to say, in the end, we found an unmarked box in the Warner Archives that had a lot of his personal photos and his drawings (costume drawings). And then our final crowning achievement: we found that memoir. Before that, it was letters, articles and so on that we managed to track down.”
Down the Rabbit Hole
Armstrong is a veteran documentary filmmaker; I asked her how working on this movie compared to her usual filmmaking process. “This is sort of the longest. I suppose at the same time, when we’re researching we’re sort of starting to structure it. I really had to understand. To understand him and his work I also had to understand what life was like at that time. I had to understand the studio system, you know? What Jack Warner [head of Warner Bros.] was like as a boss. So I read two biographies on Jack, I read three biographies on Cary Grant, three biographies on Bette Davis. Half my bookcase is the golden age of Hollywood. It was actually great, great fun. And then, the people who… the actresses that he worked with, the ones he became close to. Like Kay Francis and Bette and so on. Marion Davies has a wonderful small biography, which was all verbatim. Absolutely her words, it wasn’t someone who re-edited them. Going through those and combing for any mention of Orry or getting a sense of his personal life. You know, the parties and so on with Fanny Brice.”
Armstrong’s research wasn’t limited to dusty old books. She also watched countless hours of classic films in search of imagery that best represents Kelly’s talents. Armstrong stated, “I had to start selecting clips that I thought, ‘Well this would be great to show his talent in this area or that area.’ I did a lot of movie watching and finally caught up with a lot the classics of the golden age. A lot of them I had never seen all the way through. That was very enjoyable.”
It’s natural for anyone sitting through weeks of movie clips to encounter burnout. I asked Armstrong whether going deep down the classic movie rabbit hole affected her. Specifically, if coming upon Some Like It Hot on TV would drive her out of the room screaming? After a brief chuckle, her response was what you would expect from a woman who dedicated her life to film. “No, well there’s some films, I’ve gotta say, and that’s one of the ones. When the editor and I were fine cutting the film by this stage and we wanted to find one extra shot or something, and we go back, and then we realize we start watching the film again. You could watch Some Like it Hot forever I think. And, some of [Auntie] Mame. We just watched and laughed because they’re so enjoyable and so beautifully done. So, I’m ok, I’ve come out of the rabbit hole.”
Like many in her field, Armstrong has a hard time watching her own movies. “No, no, no. I can hear the soundtracks of my films and this sort of terrible head-neck pinch, my shoulders seize,” she tells me. “I’m sure it’s the same with all annoying perfectionists, you never want to stop, there’s always things you want to do better. It’s just like if only I could get back to it, just tweak this, tweak that. But no, no. The films that he [Kelly] designed and those incredible directors that he worked with, I could look at their films over and over. I suppose that’s why those films ended up iconic and that’s why they’re still being watched.”
Once production wraps, Anderson needs a buffer period. She prefers stepping away and recharging her batteries before starting her next project. “I know directors that I hear of, they’re doing the sound mix and they’re on the phone with the next one ready to go the second they walk out the door. I’m ready to head for the desert island. Definitely.”
Unearthing Storytelling Gems
Women He’s Undressed offers a bold look behind the scenes of Hollywood’s Golden Age. One standout moment describes an incident on the set of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex from 1939. From the sound of it, Kelly, Davis, and Daniel Day-Lewis would have all been besties on set. “Both Bette and Orry were sticklers for authenticity,” Armstrong tells me, “which was really not the way films were made in the ’30s and ’40s. If it was a 1930s film, even if she was playing Queen Elizabeth I, she had 1930s makeup and so on. So, they had researched it [dresses] and the hoops on Elizabeth’s dress were very, very wide and the director said, ‘No, no, no. We don’t have to go through that extreme,’ and made Orry redo the hoops. On the day when they started shooting, Bette and Orry conspired to use the real authentic ones. They figured that the director on the day of shooting was so caught up with production and organizing the crane shot or something that he wouldn’t notice. And he didn’t.”
I asked Armstrong if there were any similar anecdotal gems that she couldn’t find room for in her final cut? “There was one. Miriam Hopkins, who was one of Warner Bros. leading actresses. She was in a lot of films with Bette but often played the best friend. There was a film they were making together and she felt that Bette, being the star, was getting more attention. She had got into the costume room and chosen a hat or something, and put extra flowers on it, fiddling with her costume without Orry’s knowledge. And he came on the set and he saw her standing in it and apparently he pulled the hat off her head and he jumped up and down on it, squashed it.”
“Orry-Kelly’s funeral cortege borne by glamorous girls.”
A Look Behind the Curtain
It’s not uncommon for movie lovers to carry a romantic notion of classic Hollywood. I asked Armstrong if pulling back Hollywood’s veil ruined the magic. “I was actually shocked at the power of the Hays Code [A set of moral guidelines imposed on American motion pictures during the ‘30s]. I didn’t realize they had to (re)shoot the end of Babyface, the Barbara Stanwyck film, because of a woman. I thought what a great story. She came from terrible poverty and she basically slept her way to the top. But that has to be punished. You know? This whole sort of moral agenda. So she can’t end up happily ever after. She did apparently; I didn’t know that until we were researching it.”
“I know there is a terrible pressure on actors to hide their private life, and I think that still exists,” Armstrong said. “But I was very surprised to find out that there was pressure on the costume designers as well because the studios wanted to promote them as part of their brand. That was interesting, that the costume designers were forced into having sham marriages. It says something about Orry that he refused to follow that route. I’m certain his friendship with Ann and Jack Warner must have helped, definitely helped. It was definitely a factory though. Finishing a film and having the next one on the table.”
Speaking to Armstrong now, it’s hard to imagine her as the young, inexperienced director that broke onto the scene with My Brilliant Career. During her first screening at Cannes, Armstrong was so certain her film would bomb that she bolted out of the theatre. Since then, she has established herself as a successful working director.
Before we parted ways, I asked her if she could pinpoint a moment when she knew she had made it as a filmmaker. “That was at a preview screening,” she recounts. “You have an early screening and then have the second one. I think probably by the next morning, they had all convinced me that the cheers were genuine, it wasn’t just that the PR person had whipped up the French crowd, which is what they had told me so many times. They were boasting of our PR people; they were the top people. They said ‘No, no, no. You can’t force a crowd to clap and cheer and ask for a standing ovation,’ then I was like, ‘oh, you mean all that was real?’ And then of course, the next day when Judy Davis and I were sort of on the cover of every newspaper and magazine. I think then I realized, oh no, it was real, and people did really, really like us.”
“So yeah, I’ve had a big head ever since then,” she chuckles.