I have been waiting for this. Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong is one of my favorite directors of all-time. You know her from such beautiful films as Oscar and Lucinda, Little Women, Charlotte Gray and My Brilliant Career (this one is a MUST SEE). However, Armstrong hasn’t made a narrative feature since 2007 and the reasons are becoming familiar as I research and watch these films by women. The issues are a lack of funding and opportunities for women filmmakers and films, of overblown corporate studio systems that get in the way of making good films and, most of all, the wasteland that exists when it comes to finding a solid script. Armstrong has been outspoken about the fact that, for many years, she hasn’t found one decent narrative story to make. The scripts that come her way are “banal” and “predictable after the first ten pages.” She believes the best writers are mostly in television now (true) and laments the dearth of great dramatic and character-driven theatrical films.

Like Debra Granik, whom I also featured on this blog, Armstrong has turned her hand to documentaries, where there is a wealth of wonderful stories to be told on less expensive budgets. This week her latest documentary was released on VOD and it tells the story of Orry-Kelly, the incomparable yet mostly unknown Hollywood costume designer, who also hailed from Australia. Although you may not know his name, you have definitely seen his work, as he designed for everyone from Bette Davis to Marilyn Monroe to Ingrid Bergman to Katharine Hepburn to Jane Fonda. He also had a profound influence on some of our best costume designers working today, such as Ann Roth (The English Patient), Colleen Atwood (Chicago) and Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby).

This film is fascinating on a few levels. As a lover of Old Hollywood film history, I couldn’t get enough of the inside scoop on the behind-the-scenes drama of the studio system. There are tons of juicy tidbits about actors such as Bette Davis, who is one of my artistic heroes and who was a close collaborator with Kelly. The fashion and glamour is a feast for the eyes. But, most of all, Kelly was one of the few openly gay and working members of the Hollywood system at a time when the LGBT community was often ostracized and blacklisted. And Kelly carried a powerful personal secret to his grave that I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t seen the film.

Armstrong went on a long hunt for a lost memoir of Kelly’s, which she finally located and which is finally going to be published. Her sources are first-hand–both Kelly’s own writing about his life and other artists who actually worked with him. Armstrong employs actors in stylized re-enactments of certain scenes; it’s a bit jolting at first but stick with it. Eventually it dawned on me that, as a master of her craft, Armstrong made a precise choice in how to tell her story and it all serves her subject matter perfectly in the end. It’s an emotionally compelling and entertaining ride through old Hollywoodland and I’m thrilled to see new work from this director I love.

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About Dawn

Art Maker / Nature Lover / Soul Seeker

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