Marilyn Monroe in a beaded dress by Orry-Kelly in Some Like It Hot, 1959 (Photo: Everett Collection)
Here is something I suspect even the most fervid film buff probably doesn’t know: Bette Davis had big, low-hanging breasts, and she refused to wear an underwire bra because she thought they caused cancer. So Orry-Kelly, one of the most celebrated costume designers in the golden age of Hollywood, solved the Davis dilemma by using foulards, pockets, buttons, and other visual tricks to disguise her floppers.
Orry-Kelly, born Orry George Kelly in 1897 in Kiama, Australia, and the subject of the documentary Women He’s Undressed, directed by Gillian Armstrong and available beginning tomorrow on DVD/VOD, was a master at making screen goddesses look beautiful. He put Ingrid Bergman in her white suits in Casablanca, created Leslie Caron’s ingenue looks for An American in Paris, encased Shirley MacLaine’s gams in poison-apple-green stockings in Irma La Douce, made Natalie Wood’s Gypsy stripper gowns, and was responsible for the coin outfits barely covering the chorines in Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933.
Orry-Kelly arrived in Manhattan in 1921, and scrounged out a living in those crazy days, working as an actor, a painter, and a set designer until he realized that costumes were his true calling. He went west in 1932, and ended up working on hundreds of films. He won three Oscars and was a huge success—even after losing practically everything and going into rehab for alcoholism, he rebuilt his career to arguably even more spectacular heights.
But there is a dark vein running through this tale. In a rabidly homophobic Hollywood, Orry-Kelly lived as openly and as bravely as a gay man could. (In his New York days, he cohabited and purportedly had a very cozy relationship with Archibald Leach, who went on to become Cary Grant.)
The documentary, which employs surreal directorial tricks to tell the story, chooses not to show us Orry-Kelly’s face until the very last frames. When we finally meet him, he leaps up to the stage to receive his Oscar for Some Like It Hot. Though he made Marilyn sparkle and gleam in that film, he gives a shout-out to the other “female” leads: “I thank you and particularly Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon . . . they never looked lovelier.”