Thursday 19 April 2018

Books: Naked truths: long-lost secrets from golden age of Hollywood

Fashion: Women I've Undressed, Orry-Kelly, Allen & Unwin, hdbk, 432 pages, €26.25

Masters of disguise: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot, one of three films for which Orry-Kelly won an Oscar for his costume work.
Masters of disguise: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot, one of three films for which Orry-Kelly won an Oscar for his costume work.
Man of contradiction: Orry-Kelly (second left) with actress Bebe Daniel (second right) at the Academy Awards
Women I've Undressed by Orry-Kelly

Edel Coffey on costume designer Orry-Kelly's memoir which was originally deemed too scurrilous to publish

As rags to riches stories go, Orry-Kelly's is a good one. Born in rural Australia at the turn of the 19th century, this son of a bankrupt somehow made his way to Hollywood to become the top costume designer for the biggest movie stars of the 20th century. You may not know his name, but you've certainly seen his clothes on the backs of actresses like Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Stanwyck amongst others.

How he made his way to Hollywood is worthy of a movie in its own right, and it fills the opening chapters of his long-lost memoir, which has just been published. Women I've Undressed is presented as a sumptuous coffee table fashion tome but the text reads like a racy Jackie Collins novel... except it's all true.

A few years before his death in 1964, he wrote his memoirs but they were deemed too scurrilous to publish at that time, not least because they revealed a gay relationship with Cary Grant. Two years ago, however, Orry-Kelly's great-niece discovered the manuscript wrapped in a pillowcase and it has now finally been published. Page after page of lavish illustrations show the costumes that are as familiar to movie fans as the stars wearing them - Ingrid Bergman in her trench coat in Casablanca; Marilyn Monroe in her trembling beaded black satin dress in Some Like it Hot. The Australian costume designer Catherine Martin, who has worked on the spectacular fashions of Baz Luhrmann's films Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, credits Orry-Kelly with inspiring her own career, along with many of the costumes she has designed.

Born Orry Kelly in 1897 (he later hyphenated the name to 'fancy it up' on the suggestion of a Hollywood bigshot), it's not much of a surprise that this young man left home early. His earliest memories include his father snatching away his mini-theatre, complete with dolls he had designed costumes for, and forcing the budding costumier to help him load manure into his wheelbarrow as this activity was much more suitable for a boy.

When he was 17, he left his hometown of Kiama on the New South Wales coast and moved to Sydney where he fell into a demi-monde of prostitutes and gamblers. Seven years later, he set sail for New York with dreams of becoming an actor. He shared rooms with another aspiring actor, Archibald Leach, who later became known as Cary Grant.

It was while trying to make his way as an actor that he fell into the career that would make him famous amongst the most iconic movie stars of the last century. To earn extra money as an out-of-work actor, he painted murals in bars, and department stores, which led on to some stage and set design work. It was this work which eventually led him to costume design in Hollywood. He was a talented painter and his impressionistic oil paintings are used throughout this book to illustrate particular periods of his life. The early paintings, representing the glamorous prostitutes of Sydney, look much like designs for a catwalk show in his renderings.

Orry-Kelly's own character comes across as multi-faceted in this book - at times private and retiring, sometimes conspiratorial and indiscreet, flamboyant and excessive. His friendship with Cary Grant was tempestuous. They knew each other on the way up, when neither of them had any money, but inevitably they drifted as Grant's fame grew. There are some fascinating details about the young Cary Grant and an insight into his character is given by the fact that he kept a little red notebook in which he kept account of the money he spent. Once, while drunk, he told Orry-Kelly that he owed him $360.48. Orry-Kelly put this down to occasional nights out for which Grant had paid. It's these details, the ones that have been overlooked by Hollywood biographers, that make this book so satisfying.

The passing comment that Marilyn Monroe had stocky limbs. Or the throwaway line of his long-time collaborator, Bette Davis, that "she was in one of her moods all that week" makes for fascinating reading. The revelation that Ingrid Bergman wore no make-up whatsoever in Casablanca is hard to believe but again it's one of those details that makes for great Hollywood mythology. Orry-Kelly also described her as "the most un-actressy of all the actresses".

Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, seemed to be the most actressy, flying into rages, abusing him with foul language and insisting on wearing no underwear for a negligee scene in Some Like it Hot. The judicious placement of some black lace and a dressing gown meant that the scene made it past the censors.

Women I've Undressed is a frank and brutal account of Hollywood's golden era, of its stars and their foibles, their individual weaknesses and Achilles' heels, the details that only a personal tailor gets to see, but more importantly, this book brings recognition to one of the most talented costume designers of the era.

Throughout his life, Orry-Kelly won three Oscars for his costume work on the films An American in Paris, Some Like it Hot and Les Girls. When he died from liver cancer in 1964, his pallbearers were Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and directors Billy Wilder and George Cukor. He was Hollywood royalty, but despite those Oscars, he was not a household name. This book will likely change that.

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