Kiama's multi Academy Award winner Click Here for SMH Good Weekend article by Garry Maddox on 30/5/2015
This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996
by Joel Greenberg
Orry George Kelly (1897-1964), dress designer, was born on 31 December 1897 at Kiama, New South Wales, son of William Kelly, a tailor from the Isle of Man, and his Sydney-born wife Florence Evaleen, née Purdue. Orry attended Kiama Public and Wollongong District schools. His distinctive first name (later hyphenated with his surname for professional use) was derived from a variety of carnation in his mother's garden and from that of an ancient Manx king. After working briefly in a Sydney bank, Kelly was attracted to the stage. He studied art, acting, dancing and voice, and became a protégé of Eleanor Weston. Moving to New York in 1921, he found employment first as a tailor's assistant, then as a painter of murals for nightclubs and department stores. He also formed a friendship with a young Englishman Archibald Leach, later known as Cary Grant, sharing living quarters with him and another Australian expatriate Charles ('Spangles') Phelps, a former ship's steward.
Kelly's murals soon led to employment as a title designer for silent films for the Fox Film Corporation, and to designing stage sets and costumes for players like Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Barrymore and Jeanette MacDonald. In 1931 he moved to Hollywood where Grant helped him to gain entry into First National Pictures Inc. Between 1932 and 1944 Orry-Kelly was chief costume designer at Warner Bros, working on hundreds of films and forming—with 'Adrian' at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Travis Banton at Paramount Pictures Inc.—a triumvirate of the leading men in his profession. Kelly dressed many major stars, but his most distinguished work was done for Bette Davis, whose 'red' ball gown in the black-and-white film, Jezebel (1938), was probably his best-known single creation.
An uneasy relationship with studio chief Jack L. Warner, caused chiefly by Kelly's alcoholism, came to a head in 1944 when Warner discharged him. Orry-Kelly subsequently secured a three-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation to dress Betty Grable. From 1950 he freelanced with several studios and established private workrooms. Despite declining health and mounting personal problems, he maintained his professional status, designing for Rosalind Russell, Leslie Caron, Kay Kendall, Shirley MacLaine and Natalie Wood among others. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him three Oscars for best costume design for An American in Paris (1951, shared with two others), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959).
A quarrelsome, hot-tempered man of slightly less than middle height, with brown hair and large blue eyes, Kelly was brilliant but difficult, a versatile perfectionist who used only the finest hand-finished fabrics. His period costumes were noted for their richness and authenticity; those he designed for Davis helped to define her strongly individualized screen characters. His style was marked by its felicitous balance of realism and artifice, and achieved glamour without vulgarity. A talented amateur oil-painter, he also designed ties, cushions and shawls. He enjoyed contract bridge and watching prizefights. Witty, popular and gregarious when not affected by alcohol, Kelly was known to his intimates as 'Jack'. He never married. Leaving an unfinished memoir, 'Women I've Undressed', he died of cancer on 26 February 1964 at Los Angeles and was cremated.
Kiama, New South Wales, Australia
Los Angeles, California, United States of America
Some Like It Hot with Tony Curtis
After moving to Hollywood in 1932, Orry-Kelly was hired by Warner Brothers as their chief costume designer and he remained there until 1944. Later, his designs were also seen in films at Universal, RKO, 20th Century Fox, and MGM studios. He won three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design (for An American in Paris, Cole Porter's Les Girls, and Some Like It Hot) and was nominated for a fourth (for Gypsy).
Orry-Kelly worked on many films now considered classics, including 42nd Street, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace, Harvey, Oklahoma!, Auntie Mame, and Some Like It Hot. He designed for all the great actresses of the day, including Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Dolores del Río, Ava Gardner, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyck, and Merle Oberon.
He also had to create clothes for the cross-dressing characters played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. He wrote that when he finished draping Dolores del Rio in white jersey, "she became a Greek goddess ... she was incredibly
beautiful". The elegant clothes he designed for Bergman's character in Casablanca have been described as "pitch
perfect". In addition to designing, Kelly wrote a column, "Hollywood Fashion Parade", for the International News Service, owned by William Randolph Hearst, during the years of World War II.
A longtime alcoholic, Orry-Kelly died of liver cancer in Hollywood and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills). His pallbearers included Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder and George Cukor and his eulogy was read by Jack Warner.
He had no living relatives when he died so his personal effects and Academy Awards were stored by Ann Warner, wife of his friend, Jack. The Oscars were among the items scheduled for exhibition entitled Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood, in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in August, 2015.
One of Orry's Illustrations
Here I was in Hollywood, engaged to dress film stars brighter than any I had seen on the flickering screen at home. The Kid from Kiama, son of a once-bankrupt importer of tweeds and weeds, was entering one of the biggest picture studios in the world." - Orry-Kelly
It sounds like a classic hollywood story of discovery. A creative young Australian goes to Los Angeles via New York and becomes one of the most celebrated costume designers in the Golden Years of Hollywood.
His strange-sounding name - Orry-Kelly - will not be familiar, yet this forthright and witty character from the NSW south coast won three Academy Awards in the 1950s: for the vibrant Gene Kelly musicals An American in Paris (1951) and Les Girls (1957) and the charming 1959 Marilyn Monroe-Tony Curtis comedy Some Like It Hot.
Among the 300-plus movies he worked on from the 1930s to the early 1960s were such classics as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Oklahoma!, Auntie Mame, Harvey, Irma La Douce, Arsenic and Old Lace, 42nd Street and Gypsy, the latter earning him a fourth Oscar nomination in 1963.
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In Los Angeles, Orry-Kelly, who was also a talented painter, ran with the likes of Cole Porter, Errol Flynn and gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. When he died in 1964, his pallbearers included Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and famed directors Billy Wilder and George Cukor. The usually ruthless president of Warner Bros, Jack Warner, described him as a "warm and wonderful person" with "a talent for living".
Yet Orry-Kelly, who was born Orry George Kelly on the last day of 1897, is almost entirely unknown in Australia. So unknown that Australian director Gillian Armstrong, who has been working here and in Hollywood since making My Brilliant Career in 1979, had never even heard of him when, three years ago, producer Damien Parer suggested they collaborate on a documentary. "I thought, 'Who's Orry-Kelly?' " says Armstrong, in a cafe overlooking Sydney Harbour on a shimmering autumn morning. "Then I saw the list of all the films and I was, like, 'What? Casablanca? 42nd Street? An Australian designed these films?' I felt people should know about him."
Just beyond the MCA Cafe where we meet, Armstrong's documentary, Women He's Undressed, will have its world premiere on a cruise ship during the Sydney Film Festival on June 10 before a cinema release on July 16. And with Random House releasing Orry-Kelly's previously unpublished book Women I've Undressed on August 1, and the exhibition Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood opening at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image on August 18, the designer is to be feted widely in this country for the first time.
But how did a boy from Kiama become a Hollywood celebrity? What made his clothes special enough to win Oscars in three of the first 12 years they were awarded for costume design? And what secrets did Armstrong and screenwriter Katherine Thomson discover about him - and a young English actor named Archibald Leach, who was headed for stardom - as they made their documentary film?
There were early signs that young Orry would follow a creative path. Born to tailor and surf-rescue captain William Kelly, who was from the Isle of Man, and Sydney-born, socially ambitious mother Florence, Orry was an only child with an imaginary dog named Bijou. When he was seven, his mother took him to the now-long-gone Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney to see the pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat and he was captivated. His favourite toy became a miniature theatre he'd received as a Christmas present - until his father, frustrated that his son was spending so much time playing with dolls, smashed it and sent him off with a wheelbarrow to collect manure for the garden.
Studying at local schools - details of his early life are sketchy but it was likely Kiama Public, then Wollongong District - he enjoyed drawing and painting seascapes. Then, at 17, he was sent to Parramatta in Sydney's western suburbs to stay with an aunt and study to become a banker.
As she researched the film, Katherine Thomson realised that Kiama must have been surprisingly sophisticated for a small coastal town surrounded by blue-metal quarries, given that it had a dance school, both ice- and roller-skating rinks, and an arts scene. "In terms of a rich cultural life, it was probably better than growing up in inner-Sydney Surry Hills at that time," she says. "But, of course, he was burning to get out."
Once in Sydney, Orry's continuing love of theatre overwhelmed any interest he had in banking and, at 18, he won a one-line part in the bawdy review Stiffy and Mo, starring popular comedy duo Nat Phillips and Roy Rene.
He drifted into a dissolute life in Sydney's underworld, drinking at Alice O'Grady's Woolloomooloo sly-grog shop, painting portraits of the prostitutes known as "two-guinea" or "two-bob" girls, and going to the races. He became the foil for an infamous pickpocket known as Gentleman George, jostling victims on trams, and danced with rich wives and widows twice his age for cash. But worried about turning into what he called a "lounge lizard", and scared of Gentleman George after one day refusing to pocket a dropped wallet, he caught a ship to America in 1922.
It was while living in New York, selling ties and painting Broadway sets and murals on bar walls, that he met Archie Leach, a handsome 22-year-old English-man who'd later change his name to Cary Grant. Six years Grant's senior, Orry roomed with the budding actor during St Louis theatre seasons in what Armstrong's documentary describes as an "on-again, off-again mateship", though there is the suggestion that the relationship was more than platonic.
in 1931, orry moved to Los Angeles just as talkies were taking over from silent movies during the Great Depression. When Grant's agent, Walter Herzbrun, passed on some of Orry's sketches to executives at Warner Bros, he was taken on as a costume designer. He hyphenated his names to create the more stylish-sounding Orry-Kelly.
The next year, he designed gowns for more than 20 movies; the year after that, it was more than 40. "When everyone was throwing frills, he was doing lines," says Thomson. "He really appreciated the way women's bodies moved in fabric."
For decades, Orry-Kelly spent much of his working life in fitting rooms with minimally attired Hollywood actresses, privy to the inevitable insecurities that it was his job to keep hidden from the camera. "The job of discussing a star's defects is both difficult and delicate," he once wrote. "Few are perfectly proportioned. One shoulder may slope more than the other; one bust may sag a bit or be less rounded. Often one hip may be inches higher or lower than the other one. Some are knock-kneed, while others wear their legs in parentheses."
But if he knew all about the physical flaws of glamorous stars, Orry-Kelly also recognised real beauty when he saw it. Notably, the young and voluptuous Dolores del Rio, the Mexican bombshell best remembered for her role opposite Fred Astaire in the 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio and for being the first Latin-American actress to be internationally famous. "I shall never forget the day I draped her naked figure in white jersey," he wrote. "She wanted no underpinnings to spoil the line. When I finished draping her, she became a Greek goddess as she walked close to the mirror and said, 'It is beautiful.' Taking a few steps closer and gazing into the mirror, she said in a half-whisper, 'Jesus, I am beautiful.' The 'Jesus' was said with such reverence. Narcissus? Maybe, but she spoke the truth - she was unbelievably beautiful."
Orry-Kelly led the way for a vibrant tradition of great Australian costume designers who have been recognised at the Academy Awards, including Catherine Martin, who has won four Oscars for Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby; Janet Patterson, who has four nominations for The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady, Oscar and Lucinda and Bright Star; and, of course, Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, who were recognised for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
But even with so many Australian costume designers making their mark in Hollywood, Gillian Armstrong believes filmgoers generally have no idea what the best ones do. "They add not just to the character and what the actors bring to the performance, which comes with every detail of what they're wearing, but also colour and mood and tone," she says.
Costume designer, author and ucla professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who created Indiana Jones' famous fedora and coat for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Michael Jackson's red jacket for his Thriller music video, believes Orry-Kelly was one of the three great designers of Hollywood's Golden Age (along with Adrian Greenberg, known simply as Adrian, at MGM and Travis Banton at Paramount). She believes the Australian's special qualities were shown in his intimate working relationship with one particular actress who became a star despite lacking the classic looks that studio executives wanted at the time. "Personalities are created in the fitting room," she says. "Icons are created in the fitting room. That's a relationship from the knickers outward. From the inside out, Orry-Kelly helped Bette Davis create her people."
For 1938's Jezebel, the romantic drama that won Davis an Oscar, he created the iconic red gown that her southern belle, Julie Marsden, shockingly wears to a ball at a time when unmarried women are expected to wear white. But because the film was shot in black and white, he had to create it in grey so that it would seem red on screen.
For the 1939 historical romance The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Orry-Kelly created a bold, authentic look for Davis' Queen Elizabeth I: big skirts with lots of ruffs based on the Holbein paintings of the era. After objections by director Michael Curtiz, the pair devised a scaled-back wardrobe for screen testing, then brought back the original clothes for filming. "Nobody ever knew the difference," Davis said later.
For Casablanca, Curtiz's 1942 movie that was conceived as anti-Hitler propaganda but unexpectedly became a classic, Landis says the filmmakers needed the audience to fall in love with Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa Lund and Orry-Kelly's costumes were a key factor in that. "Her clothes are very, very elegant in the movie," she says. "She had to be glamorous enough for us to fall in love with her, but she had to be simple, too. So there is not a lot of frou-frou."
Instead, Ilsa wore wide-brimmed hats, midi-skirt suits, a plain, long, white two-piece and a sheer leaf-print gown that was stunning in its simplicity. "The screen is telling stories on two levels concurrently," Landis says. "There's the visual storytelling, then the narrative storytelling and they have to be perfectly matched. Orry-Kelly's clothes for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca are pitch perfect."
for some like it hot in 1959, Orry-Kelly showed a different kind of artistry, creating clothes for cross-dressing musicians Tony Curtis (as Josephine) and Jack Lemmon (as Daphne) as well as the legendary Marilyn Monroe (Sugar Kane Kowalczyk), whose flaws, he once wrote, included short, stocky limbs. "Marilyn Monroe is someone who famously disliked underwear of any kind," says Landis. "Orry-Kelly was kind of a match made in heaven because he really understood, as any great costume designer does, a woman's body and how to hold her up without anything underneath."
Looking all the more voluptuous for being pregnant during filming, Monroe (who later lost the baby) wears two cocktail dresses - one in black and the other in nude, looking as deliciously sexy as humanly possible within the constraints of the censorious Motion Picture Production Code. Film critic Roger Ebert once observed that her beguiling star turn singing I Wanna Be Loved by You is a "striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous".
"There ain't nothin' underneath that dress; that dress is doing all the work," says Landis. "Really, that's a master designer who is figuring out and working with a cutter-fitter and providing all the support that Monroe needed just by using the dress itself. And the dress is extremely witty."
Cheekily, Orry-Kelly positioned a cut-out heart over the actress's left buttock. "It's right there in the middle of her tush," says Landis. "A red glass bugle-beaded heart. It's the cutest thing you ever saw. This must have been some kind of joke between them, because nobody sees it in the movie."
Landis believes the best costume designers have to be both diplomat and psychologist to work with vulnerable actors. "A costume designer gives the clothes to an actor, the actor gives the performance to the director and the director tells the story," she says. "It's always a mistake to start forcing actors to wear something in which they don't feel comfortable."
For the 1962 film Gypsy, Orry-Kelly's costumes helped transform Natalie Wood into the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. As movie-costume historian Larry McQueen notes in Armstrong's documentary, Wood was just 157 centimetres tall and weighed only 41 kilograms, so her most striking costumes featured cushioned bras and padded hips to make her appear more shapely; sometimes, a vertical line of beads down the front was added to make her look taller.
The australian etiquette queen june Dally-Watkins, now living in Sydney's Rose Bay and still consulting in her late 80s, recalls how much of a big deal Orry-Kelly was in Los Angeles when she stayed in his Beverly Hills mansion as a 25-year-old model in 1952. "He wanted to show me off, so he'd lend me his clothes to wear and take me out to lunch or dinner in unbelievable restaurants like Romanoff's," she says. "Everybody knew Orry. Movie stars would come for dinner and they'd all stop and talk to Orry and he'd introduce me. That's where I met actors like John Wayne, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Ray Milland, Herbert Marshall and many more. They were all friends of Orry's."
Watkins saw him as a warm and friendly personality - "a dear friend" - but glimpsed another side, too. "Sometimes he'd drink too much and get a bit cranky," she says. "After an altercation with [actress] Merle Oberon, he gave me a gold watch and he said, 'Here, June, take this thing. I don't want to be reminded of that bitch.' Written on the watch was 'To Orry, with my undying love and friendship, Merle Oberon.' A few days later, he asked me to give the watch back. He'd just get a bit angry now and again."
While Dally-Watkins knew he was gay, she says he wasn't open about his sexuality. He worked, after all, in an industry run by powerful studio bosses who went to great lengths to protect their stars' reputations. Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, long-time housemates and widely rumoured to be lovers, were both encouraged to take wives, eventually marrying seven times between them.
After falling out with Jack Warner - they had a famously stormy relationship - Orry-Kelly quit Warner Bros in 1941 and freelanced at Fox, Universal and MGM. By the early 1950s, his long struggle with alcoholism had taken a toll.
Orry-Kelly was living a reclusive life in the Hollywood Hills when the costume designer for 1955's Oklahoma! dropped out just before filming was due to start. At the urging of a friend and fellow Australian, interior designer Dorothy Hammerstein, who was married to the musical's librettist Oscar Hammerstein, Orry-Kelly was brought back to work. He had become so forgotten that his assistant on the film, Ann Roth, had never even heard of him.
"He was living modestly in the Hills," says Roth, who's now 83 and still designing costumes for Broadway and Hollywood. "He had a guy looking after him - I think his name was Eddie - and he was making tiny little paintings. He never went out." She believes Orry-Kelly had been close to death and had spent time in a sanatorium - the rehab of the time - before eventually giving up alcohol.
The musical, with its brightly coloured, theatrically styled costumes, revived Orry-Kelly's career. "Orry was one of the wittiest human beings you ever met," Roth recalls of the man who became a close friend for almost a decade. "He was never pretty when I knew him. He was round. His face was like an owl's and he had a funny little Irish nose. He was a big guy. He was tall."
But even sober, he had a bad temper. "When he would have a temper tantrum, I'd think it was sort of amusing. He would stamp his foot and whatnot. But he was loads of fun. He'd tell wonderful stories about gangsters in Las Vegas, and Hollywood moguls who had three wives and 14 girlfriends. He knew them all."
In the end, Deborah Nadoolman Landis thinks Orry-Kelly managed to be comfortable about who he was while living in what has been described as the most homophobic city in the world at that time. While both leading costume designers Adrian and Travis Banton married for appearances' sake, Orry-Kelly never did.
in february 1964, Orry-Kelly died from liver cancer in Los Angeles at the age of 67. As Armstrong notes, his death was barely reported in Australia, despite Walter Plunkett - another of Hollywood's foremost costume designers - describing him as "the greatest of all Hollywood designers". In his eulogy, Jack Warner noted that as well as having a contagious enthusiasm for his work, Orry-Kelly was always an honest character who "looked you square in the eye, charged with the energy of his beliefs, and gave lip service to no one".
His personal effects, including his Oscars, went to a long-time friend, Ann Warner, Jack's wife, who was at his bedside when he died.
Until recently, Orry-Kelly's name only came up occasionally as Australia's most prolific Oscar winner - at least until Catherine Martin overtook him in that category last year. And when it did, it was usually followed by the question, "Orry who?" Given that his celebrated career began when he took that ship out of Sydney to the United States, it is fitting that the premiere of the documentary that tells the story of a forgotten Australian in Hollywood is taking place on a cruise liner. Five decades after his death, Orry-Kelly is back in fashion.