Posted Tuesday 04 Aug 2015
She gave us My Brilliant Career over 30 years ago and led the charge for women to make movies, not just appear in them. Gillian Armstrong is still seduced by a great story though and the tale behind Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly really took her fancy. Women He's Undressed opened to rave reviews in Australia and opens here on August 13. We grabbed a few minutes to talk with Armstrong about Hollywood glamour and gender equality in the film industry on the other side of the Tasman (as you do).
What attracted you to the Orry-Kelly story? Are you interested in clothes/fashion or just a good story?
It was my producer Damien Parer who told me about Orry-Kelly. Like many Australians I'd never heard of him. But Damien's father was the cinematographer on the first Australian film to win an Oscar, in 1942 for the documentary Kokoda Front Line! and Damien has a keen interest in Australians who have won Oscars. Orry-Kelly had won three, the most Oscars for any Australian at the time (for Les Girls, An American in Paris and Some Like it Hot) yet his story hadn't been told. When I found out about him and his life and his career - he did the costumes on Casablanca! I thought it was so extraordinary I wanted to know, what was it that made him great?
The big reveal in the film is Orry-Kelly's early relationship with another actor who went onto be a big Hollywood star (we won't spoil the surprise) It's also a story about that big reveal's life in a way too isn't it?
Yes, when we found out about the relationship/friendship we knew there had to be a discussion - where they or weren't they in a relationship? We had to find out the truth. Orry-Kelly never hid the fact he was gay, but the relationship is a fascinating story.
Three Oscars and costume designer to the stars - he would be owned by Oz today - wouldn't he?
Well in the 30s and 40s he was a big star when he went home to visit his mother. There were headlines and articles about him. But after she died he didn't visit and at the same time the old Hollywood glamour days were ending and films were more gritty and hard edged. People were using hand-held cameras and it was a whole new wave. People associated with those old films were a bit pass� so he was sort of forgotten. When he died there were stories about him in New York and L.A. media but in Australia there was just a paragraph saying he'd died.
He worked on over 280 films and was Bette Davis' favourite costume designer - what was his magic?
Well there's a thing in film that if you notice the costumes or the music, it's not right, because they should be so much part of the film or the character, but if you work in film you know how much time is spent talking about what someone is wearing for a scene. Do they keep their jacket on? What colour etc, but it's all part of the whole character. Orry-Kelly really understood this - and an exhibition of his costumes and drawings, opening in Melbourne at ACMI in two weeks will give people the opportunity to see for themselves these amazing costumes. In the film we have a discussion about his outfits for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. When the film came out people thought they were too plain and understated - even the studio bosses were worried because they wanted the leading ladies to be glamourous and gorgeous. Of course now we can see that Orry-Kelly was ahead of his time with the masculine cut of her clothes for example.
Gender bender - how is it for women in film in the land of Oz? Better than My Brilliant Career days?
Online right now there is a report from the National Film School and it shows that in the last 30 years there has been an 11% increase in women working as directors, but the perception is that it is about 45%! So I felt it was time to speak out. And it is not a level playing field. Thirty years ago I thought well people should get ahead on individual talent, but now I want to see some action. Young male film graduates get snapped up by advertising companies but the women don't get headhunted like that, although in Australia they do well making TV drama.
So two weeks ago I helped set up the Women's Action Committee and we are putting together a lobbying group because we have to have some action in this area. I've been directing for 30 years so it's time to speak out! It's good to see Homeland director Leslie Linka Glatter has just had an Emmy nomination which is great so there are some success stories. I think too often women say how "lucky" they are to be in a certain role in film, and we have to move on and say we've worked damn hard and we deserve it!
Any other brilliant Ozzies out there that you want to put on the big screen?
It's easy to get pigeon-holed in this area as savior of the unknowns. I did a doco on Florence Broadhurst which introduced her to a few people, but nothing has resulted from this film yet. But it's early days�
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Gillian Armstrong with US Film Critic and Writer Leonard Maltin who appears in Women He's Undressed