Interviews · Movies

Gillian Armstrong: “Film is not a level playing field for women.”

By  · Published on August 9th, 2016

Australian director on her new film Women He’s Undressed, her approach to costume design and her advocacy work for women in film.

Credit: Tim Baure

“I have to say I was ashamed I’d never heard of Orry-Kelly,” says Gillian Armstrong, the renowned Australian director of several internationally acclaimed films such as My Brilliant Career, High Tide, Little Women and Charlotte Gray. “I’d seen all those films, but had no idea that the same person was the costume designer from say 42nd Street to Now, Voyager or Casablanca to Les Girls.”

And that was that. The next thing Armstrong decided to do after discovering Orry-Kelly was to find out who this fellow Australian truly was, and how he not only made it in Hollywood, but also became a legend as “one of the top three costume designers of all-time.”

Armstrong’s new film, Women He’s Undressed (releasing August 9 on VOD), is the product of her rigorous research on Orry-Kelly ‐ a revolutionary designer who favored clean lines and streamlined structures over frills and poofs ‐ and a rare beast of a documentary. In charting the marvelously juicy and spectacularly storied life of Orry-Kelly ‐ who dressed hundreds of films from early 1930s to 1960s, won 3 Oscars and created iconic looks for the likes of Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Kay Francis and Barbara Stanwyck ‐ Armstrong dodges the traditional talking heads + archival footage formula, and uses highly-stylized, striking re-enactments to structure her film. But of course, present-day interviews (with subjects like Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda, film critic and historian Leonard Maltin and costume designers Ann Roth and Deborah Nadoolman Landis) and splendid film clips that display Orry-Kelly’s jaw-dropping, envy-inducing designs are in there bountifully, too. It’s fair to say that Armstrong’s documentary is a slice of heaven for Old Hollywood lovers and costume design enthusiasts alike.

Along with her screenwriter Katherine Thomson, Armstrong builds a well-balanced account of Orry-Kelly’s life with Women He’s Undressed, while dedicating a generous portion of the film to his intimate and much-speculated relationship with Archibald Leach ‐ who later on assumed his movie-star name Cary Grant ‐ and chronicling the Golden Age of Hollywood in all its glory and all-consuming, possessive nature. In the end, what Armstrong achieves is a thoroughly entertaining, lush and occasionally sorrowful portrayal of an artist who both thrived on his talent and was hindered by the obstacles of a certain era in Hollywood.

Joining me on the phone all the way from Australia, Armstrong generously talked about her new film and recounted how she fortuitously got her hands on Orry-Kelly’s long-lost memoir titled “Women I’ve Undressed,” set to be released in the US in just a couple of months. We also chatted about the importance of costume design in cinema (which she briefly studied and takes incredibly seriously) and her ongoing activism and advocacy for women in film industry. “All those years I just used to say, I got here so why can’t everybody else? But now I think [different], and this is starting to look scandalous,” the filmmaker notes.

Below is an edited version of our conversation, during which she surprised me with a scoop on the Oscar-nominated costumes of My Brilliant Career I didn’t know before.

Tomris Laffly: You have been working on Women He’s Undressed for quite some time.

Gillian Armstrong: Damien [Parer], my producer, was tossing around the idea and doing little bits of research and stuff for 8 years. Once I came on board, Katherine [Thomson] (my screenwriter) and I got it moving. And it was sort of 3 years from beginning. Then it obviously spent quite a bit of time in the cutting room because of all those clips and everything. It was a huge editing job.

And you didn’t always have the memoir in hand. When did it come into the picture?

The minute we heard from the Hollywood historians about rumors of a memoir people have been trying to find for the last 30 years, Katherine Thomson and I were determined. There was a rumor that a copy had been sent to his family in Australia. So we did a huge campaign here, got a genealogist tracking them down, and we were given a name of one branch of the family. Anyway, we finally gave up after a year of looking for it. It was literally about 6 weeks before I was due to leave for LA and New York to start the interviews, I made a random comment on a radio station and mentioned I was working on the film about Orry-Kelly. A woman heard it while driving. She sent an email to my agent and said, “I heard Gillian Armstrong on Newcastle Radio and she mentioned Orry-Kelly, and I’m actually very close friends with his great niece. I wonder if Gillian would be interested in meeting her. By the way, she has a copy of his memoir.”


Yep, it was wow! So yes, we finally got it and did add some things that we found out. And we got the family publisher, so it’s now out and called “Women I’ve Undressed”. They did a beautiful job of putting photos and things and costume sketches we gave them from the film. Random House has it in Australia and London and it should be coming out in the States in the next few months.

How did you reach the creative decision to structure the film not only with talking heads and archival footage but also with re-enactments?

The first thing I did was to bring in Katherine Thomson. We’d worked together before on a documentary called Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst, which was in Sundance eight years ago. We began researching and finding whatever we could with letters and newspaper articles. We realized as we started reading interviews Orry gave, and his letters to say Marion Davies or Hedda Hopper, that he had this wonderful self-deprecating wit and there was so little stills and footage of him. We found quite a few quotes where he was dry and had opinions about Bette [Davis] or about what she should wear and so on. That’s when we decided we really should get an actor to say them. We felt that would be the best way to take you into his character.

It’s a very low budget documentary and I hate those really-on-the-nose re-enactments that you sometimes see. So I decided that the best thing to do was to stylize it. He made a huge journey in the ’20s. He went from Sydney to San Francisco; then took a train across America…so to leave Australia alone at age 24, heading to Broadway… He had such an inner bravery and drive. Him in a boat is [therefore] a key image.

It’s a risk that pays off. In one scene Ann Roth refers to Orry-Kelly as “young, wild, fun”. The re-enactments really capture that.

Oh good, because we have had some critics that said that was the one thing they didn’t like in the film. I know that’s going to divide people. [Some audiences] say in the beginning it was a bit of a shock. But then they went with it.

Darren Gilshenan delivers a moving performance. How did you help him prepare for the part?

He read a lot about Orry. I sent him everything we found out about people describing Orry and so on. Darren is a really fantastic actor and actually a great comedian, so he got into character very fast. Especially when I threw him into a boat. The first day we did that out on the water on a cold day…he did a great job.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Orry-Kelly through all your research?

I didn’t realize that there was such pressure…I mean with the Hays Code. I knew that Hollywood was very homophobic, and there was pressure on the stars to have a female partner. But I didn’t realize that the costume designers were also pressured by the studios. They wanted to publicize their designer and have his lovely at-home pictures, with his beautiful wife and their beautiful surroundings. [And there were sham marriages.] I thought that said a lot about Orry that he refused to do that. It did come through that he might be rude and brash sometimes, but he had an inner integrity. And we knew he had major drinking problems. So that was a surprise in the end when we only found out just before I was about to interview Ann Roth, and I was speaking from the phone, when she said “I don’t know that much about him, I don’t know how long he was in rehab.” We were like, “Rehab? We didn’t know he went to rehab!”

The way you portray his relationship to Cary Grant, which is a big part of the film, is very sensitive and respectful. It’s not gossipy in tone, and comes across very heartfelt and honest.

Oh, good. I didn’t want to sensationalize it. I didn’t want it to be all about, was Cary gay or not? He was probably Bi. I had a lot of sympathy for the pressure on those heptosexual matinee idols. I do feel that Randolph Scott was the love of Cary’s life and I feel very sad that they had to bow to the studio’s wishes and have partners. At one point I did speak to Eric Sherman, whose father Vincent directed Mr. Skeffington. He took over Cary and Orry’s apartment in New York when they were on the run from the mafia because none of their friends were paying up in the speakeasy they were running. I asked, “how many bedrooms were in the apartment?” He said “one”. Then I thought I’m not going to put that in the film. In the end, I wanted to paint the picture of the society that they lived in…which hasn’t completely changed. A lot of brave actors have come out now but I still feel if they’re an idol, people want to feel that they’re having a heterosexual relationship.

In addition to being a profile of Orry-Kelly, your film is also a great crash course on the Golden Age of Hollywood. You have a lot of material about the workings of the industry, the studio system and key players, pre-code and post-code rules. And Orry-Kelly’s story never gets lost in that landscape.

It was really hard work in the cutting room. I’ve got a really brilliant editor, Nicholas Beauman, whom I’ve worked with from the beginning with My Brilliant Career. And we had arguments. I said I think there’s too much about early Hollywood. And he said “No, it’s really important to put him in this historical context.” And I did think there’s probably a whole generation who has no idea about the Code and how the studio worked, so it was important you understood what he was up against. That it was a really delicate balance, to keep the film moving, not weigh it down with history. My editor has great instincts and I think we got the right balance in the end.

Also a nice potential side effect: a lot of people will want to go back and either discover some of these films for the first time, or re-visit them.

I hope so. Some like Baby Face and The Letter and Now, Voyager haven’t dated. And I’m such a sucker for Casablanca. It was nice to hear in Orry’s memoir what a lovely person Ingrid was. Because I think that comes through on the screen, that sense of integrity really humble quality she had.

Jane Fonda probably has the most memorable, funniest bit when she’s talking about Marilyn Monroe’s breasts in that fabulous dress in Some Like It Hot.

She brings the house down. For a number of screenings I’ve been to where I’ve done Q&A, I sneak in for that part of the film especially. We realized (because we had a couple of early screenings) that no-one hears whatever the next line is because of the laughter, so we did put a little extra pause as we knew people would laugh after that.

I really love what Ann Roth said about the role of a costume designer: “Our jobs as costume designers is helping an actor disappear into character.” And costume design was your training in the beginning, too. Do you share the same view?

I do. I went to art school for high school because I knew I wanted to do something in theater or film And I did do some costume design but I realized I only had about 6 ideas, and so I moved on and realized that film brought everything together for me. But I’ve always had great respect for what a costume designer does. I do think that a bad costume that is wrong for the character can actually destroy a film. Because you know, it takes the audience out. They’d feel something is false. So I’ve always been a tough taskmaster on hair, makeup and costume. The clothes should be frayed, and they should be worn, and they should be exactly authentic, because only if you really have the right undergarments do you walk like someone did in the past. And, costume design isn’t just about period films ‐ it’s also important in contemporary film. I’ve worked with brilliant designers, so I was happy in some way to show the art and the magic of great costume design.

From Charlotte Gray and My Brilliant Career to Little Women, you have made several period films, working with costume designers like Colleen Atwood and Anna Senior. What’s your collaboration process with your designers?

Well, Luciana Arrighi actually designed the costumes for My Brilliant Career.

She did?

Yes, Anna was her head of wardrobe. When we made that little film, which we never thought would actually get out of Australia, Luciana who was also the production designer. She thought that Anna had done such a wonderful job as her right hand person, so she gave her the title of costume designer, and then lo and behold, it was nominated for an Oscar. My producer and I rang the Academy and said that Luciana did the costumes and not Anna, and we got her original drawings and everything, and they said, “I’m sorry, we go by the credits on the screen.” Luci did of course win that Oscar for Howards End for production design.

Anyway, I do sit down with the production designer and costume designer, and the Director of Photography early on to talk about the overall look of the film. The other thing with costumes: a color that can have an emotional, subliminal effect. And then the costume designer, the actor, and I get together talking about the character. Then I let the actor and costume designer go away and play. When they feel they’ve found some things that are working, they call me in.

Are you working on something currently?

I’ve got two fiction scripts that I’m working on and in between, I’ve ended up being on many women’s action panels.

I feel like, I’ve been asked “why are there not more women directors?” for over 30 years. I was at TIFF last year and there was a panel discussing the gender issue about the lack of women directors and I grabbed the microphone and I said, “I was here in this very country, Toronto, making my first feature 35 years ago and nothing has changed, and we’ve got to stop just talking about it and we’ve got to be proactive and do something.”

The needle is moving very slowly unfortunately.

In Australia, we lobbied the Australian Government, Screen Australia, and had great success. They’ve put up special funding to develop more projects with women directors, writers and producers, which they call Brilliant Stories. In Australia, 17% of directors are women. It’s not as if they haven’t had extraordinary role models with Jane Campion, Cate Shortland, Jocelyn Moorhouse and my little self. It’s not a level playing field. It’s 50:50 coming out of film school so where is all that female talent going? And I see it’s now finally being talked about in Hollywood too.

It is being talked about. There are mentorship programs here too, and social media is playing a huge role in calling studios out on their bias frequently. But it sounds like in Australia you have a better percentage of women directors than we have here in the US.

Yeah, I think your percentage is like 12.

I think it’s around that number.

And in the UK, the British Film Institute has done a survey as well and two things they said: it’s not a conscious bias, but it’s so embedded it’s an unconscious bias. The thing is, I knew at the beginning, and didn’t complain about it as sexism. I just knew it was a reality that I had the potential to be judged differently. If my film failed, I was carrying women on my back as well. Even [when a female-centric film] makes money, it’s still talked about as unusual. It should be common sense. But I’m feeling optimistic.

I’m optimistic too, but what you said is perhaps the most frustrating thing about gender bias; that female success stories are treated as exceptions. But hopefully we will get there.

Google and Apple are doing these gender initiatives as well, aren’t they? And if they’re doing them because it makes their company seem good politically, fine, because it is working. I know a young Australian woman director, Anthea Leonard, who had eight mentorships in Australia, won a top short film prize and she still hadn’t actually got a break to be a director. She went to LA and got picked up by Google or one of those companies and got a mentorship as a result. She got a 1-hour TV pilot and I read in Variety a couple weeks ago that she got her first feature up.

The Academy is now making efforts to diversify their membership too, including more women and people of color.

The thing about The Academy, we’ve all accepted it for so long. When Little Women came out, the studio said to me, “you know the sad thing is when we send out the DVD we know none of the Academy voters who are white men, will watch it because they’ll think it’s a girl’s film.” We did get the nominations we did, but you know, we just sort of accepted they wouldn’t look at a woman’s film because there are no women judging. And it’s obviously the same for people of color. So it’s good to see that they’re trying to broaden their membership.

And now Cannes has to do it. Cannes is truly an old boys club. It’s the same old, same old every year and they say we only pick the best, and that’s our criteria, and I’m like; that’s not right. When you’re selecting a program of films, you should be going, “oh, we haven’t had a film from China for a while, let’s put one in from China. There are two great films from Britain, so let’s put the Turkish one in.” And they should also be saying, “we’ve now got so many films from established male directors, maybe we should put this one directed by a woman in this year.”

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.