Gillian Armstrong, One of Our Great Directors, on the Genius of Costumers


Let’s not dwell too much on the fact that Gillian Armstrong’s new film, the lovely documentary Women He’s Undressed, is going pretty much straight to VOD and DVD, with barely a theatrical release. Rather, let’s rejoice in the fact that we finally have a new movie from her at all. Armstrong, among the greatest directors of the past several decades, made her first big splash with 1979’s My Brilliant Career, in which Judy Davis starred as a headstrong young nineteenth-century Australian woman determined to become a writer. Over the next two decades, she would make such masterful films as High Tide (1987, also with Davis), The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), Little Women (1994), and Oscar and Lucinda (1997) — the latter starring a then-on-the-cusp-of-stardom Cate Blanchett, who also played the title role in Armstrong’s Charlotte Gray (2001).

Along the way, Armstrong also made documentaries — few of which ever got shown stateside. Her latest is a portrait of the life of Orry-Kelly, an Australian costume designer who worked on some of the most unforgettable works of classical Hollywood, from Jezebel to Casablanca to An American in Paris to Some Like It Hot. It’s a story worth telling. Kelly was an out gay man whose early lovers included Cary Grant (who spurned the designer in later years). But — despite his three Oscars and eventful life — Orry-Kelly’s name is seldom uttered today. Armstrong’s film seeks to correct that, and it does so in stylized, colorful fashion. The director spoke to us recently about her new movie, its resonances with her other work, and the importance of costume design.

Watching Women He’s Undressed, I realized I’d never heard of Orry-Kelly — yet I’d seen so many of the movies he’d done. How familiar were you with him before you made this film?

It was really my producer Damien Parer’s baby. Damien’s father was the very first Australian to win an Academy Award, for his wartime film Kokoda Trail [a/k/a Kokoda Front Line!]. Damien really called after his father — his father was actually killed before Damien was born — and he was looking for other Australians who had won Academy Awards. So he came across Orry-Kelly’s name. He was taken aback — here was this person who had won three Oscars that he’d never heard of. He researched him and felt he deserved a documentary. It was some mutual friends who said, “Why don’t you ask Gillian, because she has done some docs and she has a real interest in art and design.” When he approached me, my first response was, “Who’s Orry-Kelly?” Just like you. And then I looked him up, and I thought, “He designed all these?” I take note of film credits, who the crew was, that sort of thing. So I was sort of ashamed that I knew nothing about him. I had no idea that he was this incredible designer, and that he came from Australia.

That’s surprising, because your films have incredible costume design, and they’ve actually been nominated for several Oscars themselves in that category.

My guilt and shame made me feel I should make this story! I’ve got incredible respect for costume and how important it is in a film. And I have worked with some of the best in the world, with Colleen Atwood, who was nominated for Little Women, and Janet Patterson who was nominated for Oscar and Lucinda, and Anna Senior, who did My Brilliant Career. I know the magic that they weave, and I think that people misunderstand the role of the costume designer — they bring so much to the films and so much to the performances. Once the actor puts that last piece on, they suddenly understand and become the character.

Can you give me some examples of when that happened on your own films?

I remember with Winona on Little Women, there we were, everybody’s rehearsing in T-shirts and heavy jeans and baggy pants and so on. But when she put on one of Jo’s dresses, and the wig, she went, “Oh, I’ve got it.” At that time too she had a real short tomboy cut, so the hair was also part of it. The decisions for wigs and hair is something we do discuss with the costume designer, because so often half the film is the close-up, the head shot.

I also remember when I did a film called The Last Days of Chez Nous in Australia, with Bill Hunter — who’s an iconic Australian character actor who always plays big men and strong, fighting men. I was casting him to play older than himself, to play the lead character’s father, and after he was with Janet in wardrobe fittings he had these old-man shorts on and knee-high socks, with these shoes and this pale yellow shirt. He just became an old man right in front of my eyes. By the end of the film, I was treating him like an old man: “Are you OK, Bill? Do you need anything?” And then I ran into him on the last day, at the wrap party, and he’s standing there in a denim shirt and jeans, and I was shocked. I’d completely forgotten. He’s young! As soon as he put those knee-high socks and shorts on, he became an old man to me. And he’s not someone who would, like some actors, do the whole “I’m doing Method, I’m in character” thing.

He might not even have been doing it consciously.

It actually just happens subliminally to all of us. Those clothes helped him. In our film Anne Roth tells a similar story about Jane Fonda and Klute. And about Dustin [Hoffman] and an old pair of shoes that were run down in a certain way. When he put them on, it made him stand in an odd way, in Midnight Cowboy. There are a million stories like that.

It seems like there’s a tendency, especially with the Oscars, to focus on period pieces. But as you point out with Last Days of Chez Nous and Bill Hunter, costuming in contemporary settings can have even more challenges.

It’s so perplexing, because the Academy Awards are actually voted on by the practitioners, so you think they’d know. But almost every year it goes to period films. But actually, what somebody did in a contemporary setting, even just with a certain color — I think of Janet in Last Days of Chez Nous again, costuming for the younger sister played by Kerry Fox, whose character is more of a free spirit. She had this rich blue dyed jacket that brought her eyes out. Anytime I had a close-up, the collar made Kerry’s eyes ping. Which made her the more desirable of the two sisters. The Oscars do this with cinematography as well. Time and time again, the film that has the landscape and the sunsets gets nominated or wins, and you think, “Well, that was actually probably second unit! It’s the lighting and the composition that they should be looking at.”

The general public think the costume designers are there just to make people look pretty. But often it’s the opposite: They want to make them look ugly, or older, or thinner, or odd. Or poor. The thing that’s fascinating about costume design — and Deborah Nadoolman’s books on it are really wonderful about this — is the whole psychological weight of how we respond when we see somebody. So, whether a person has two buttons done up, or only one, or whether a shirt is crumpled or not — those little details make us believe things about characters before they’ve even opened their mouth.

You’re known primarily for your fiction films, but you’ve actually been making documentaries since the beginning of your career. Is your approach different with documentaries than it is with fiction?

It’s very different. When I was in film school we had an exercise where we had to do a documentary, and I went, “No, I don’t want to do a documentary! I’m never going to do one! I’m only interested in drama!” But I got hooked in part because in the beginning you’re just trying to make a living. When I got started, I made some craft art documentaries, like twenty-minute ones, for the Craft Council in Australia — my diploma is in art. Then I was asked to do a documentary about what it’s like to be a fourteen-year-old girl, called Smokes and Lollies. Making that, I got personally involved with those girls. It’s about one of the questions I love in all stories, in real drama as well, which is about what happens to people in life — is it the choices we make, or is it personality? In and out of my feature films, I went back to Adelaide and did follow-ups. At that time nobody was doing longitudinal studies. I didn’t know about Seven Up!, which was happening in England. I think I’ve been back five times. I’ve followed the girls from age fourteen to forty-seven. The last one was called Love, Lust, and Lies.

The thing about documentary is that it’s the absolute opposite to what I normally do. Every scene in my films, I’ve planned — every shot, every color. I’ve chosen all the locations, and I’ve walked around all the locations with the cinematographer. I’ve chosen all the best angles. But with a documentary, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You might write an outline, like, “These are the things we’re going after.” But that’s about it. So it’s scary, especially because as I’ve just pointed out, I’m a complete control freak. And you’re in the hands of a cinematographer who has to grab stuff as it’s happening. Normally, I’m checking every shot and going, “No, a little bit to the right” or “Frame it like this.” My aim as a documentary filmmaker is to make the people I’m filming feel relaxed and comfortable and get them to talk and reveal themselves. Then in the cutting room, that’s where you make the story. So it’s the opposite from features, where you might have spent three years putting the script together.

But this film isn’t exactly a traditional documentary. It’s got an actor playing Orry-Kelly in many scenes, reading his letters, and while it doesn’t have re-enactments per se, it’s very stylized and precise.

Thank you for not calling them re-enactments. You’re right. But they are stylized. I should say that my earlier comments had to do with documentaries where you’re following someone around and filming their life. When I did my film on Florence Broadhurst [Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst], I said to the producer, “If you want me to do a film on this woman’s life, I need a writer. Because even if it’s to be an hour long, it’s got to have a dramatic structure and dramatic tension. It’s got to be planned.” And the same thing with Women He’s Undressed. I brought on Katherine Thomson, who also did Unfolding Florence, who’s a wonderful playwright and screenwriter. We structured this completely. It took us a long time, looking at Orry’s letters and planning it all, putting in reveals along the way.

There’s also a very vivid sense of place in Women He’s Undressed — with both Australia and the depiction of Hollywood in its Golden Age. This is something it has in common with your fiction films.

It’s still cinema, and you do want a visual style. It took us a long time to figure it out, especially as it was about a visual designer. How do we tie the character we have, who has Orry’s words, how do we tie him in so that it’s not a literal re-enactment and corny, but still punchy and visual? So we came up with the idea of the man in the boat. Some people like it, and other people are taken aback by it.

All my films have to have a sense of design. Even with my little documentaries. I say I’m in the hands of the cameraperson, but I actually do say, “Let’s sit her here, at her dressing table, and I want to see the bottles of nail polish behind her,” or whatever. I’m still there pulling the strings. Definitely in this film, because his color work is so vibrant, we wanted to subliminally set that up in the color choice and the style.

Making these documentaries in this way, it seems like you’re also getting to flex your narrative and fiction muscles as well, to some extent.

It’s part of the reason why I’ve been doing them. Because the studio pictures became too many cooks, too many producers, too many people giving me notes. I have great freedom doing documentaries. I can be my own boss and take risks, like putting a man in a red boat and finding a story. We did start off, Katherine and I, thinking, “Let’s see. It may not be enough for a ninety-minute film.” But in the end we found a lot of story in Orry’s life. And we became detectives. We uncovered a lot of stuff as well. We wanted to build tension into the story, too. I know people get frustrated. They want to see more of him — the real Orry. But we hope that there’s an emotional build to when we finally see him [in archival footage] at the end.

Women He’s Undressed also feels very much like one of your films in the sense that, with all the scenes between Orry and his mother, it turns out to be a story about families.

Yeah, that was a very close bond between them. I realized in the end that’s what Little Women was about, too. Everyone thought, “Oh, she’s doing it because it’s about a woman achiever and it’s a whole feminist thing.” But it was so much about family and about sisters. Everyone relates to that. With Women He’s Undressed, there was also this idea of personal betrayal — because you see that in his friendship with Cary Grant. That was a very deep thing. Not necessarily even in a romantic way. I mean, they were lovers, but more importantly, it was this friend who then cut him in all those years.

Speaking of families, and betrayal, and your earlier work: Let’s talk briefly about High Tide. It is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and Judy Davis gives one of the all-time great performances in it. But it feels like it’s so hard for people to see that movie nowadays.

How lucky was I that this young girl who walked into my audition turned out to be one of the world’s best actresses! What about her as Judy Garland [in Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows]? A complete transformation! Extraordinary. I actually had a catch-up coffee with Judy about a week ago. We hadn’t sat down and had a good chat in years. I told her, “You know that our little film High Tide has such a following in the States? I’ve run into people who’ve taught it in film school.” She had no idea. There are so many people going online and discovering it. People Googling Judy Davis’s name. They might even Google mine.

The distribution of High Tide was really stuffed up. Because there was a tax break, Hemdale made their money back really quickly — basically on the Australian release — so they had no interest in releasing it worldwide, or caring about it at all. Which was so sad for everyone on the film, who all did such a great job. It was basically dropped. And they had the rights to it, so there was nothing we could do. We did a DVD with extras and stuff a few years ago. I hope you’ve got that one.

Women He’s Undressed is available on demand.