From a small country town in New South Wales to dressing Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe and designing costumes for some of the biggest movies on the silver screen, Orry-Kelly’s rise to success was astounding.
He was once the most famous Australian in Hollywood and was the Aussie with the most Academy Awards to his name until 2014, having won three over his thirty year career. And yet, in his home country, barely anyone knew about him and after his death in 1964, he became virtually forgotten. So who is Orry-Kelly, Australia’s first Hollywood legend?
Orry George Kelly was born in 1897 in Kiama, New South Wales and from a young age, had aspirations to be on the stage.
To divert him to something more respectable, his mother sent a 17 year old Orry to Sydney to study banking. This wasn’t a wise move on Mrs Kelly’s part, because his love for the theatre only flourished more in the Harbour City.
Orry inserted the hyphen and removed the George and became the glamourous Orry-Kelly when he moved to New York in 1922 to finally pursue a career in acting.
He shared an apartment with a handsome young man who had just arrived from the UK by the name of Archie Leach who also had aspirations to be a star. The pair, according to Kelly, shared an on and off relationship for the next few years until Archie Leach was shipped off to Hollywood to become Cary Grant.
Meanwhile, his acting career wasn’t fairing much better.
After literally dropping a few chorus girls during a dance number (he admitted to having weak arms), it was decided he was best to do something behind the scenes. Kelly began to work on the costumes and designing stage sets, gaining notice of some Hollywood heavyweights such as Warner Bros. executive Jack Warner.
Hollywood beckoned in 1932 and Orry-Kelly found himself moving to the West Coast where he was hired by Warner Bros as a chief costume designer.
Orry-Kelly finally hit his stride and he found where he belonged. He designed the costumes for almost 300 films including for iconic movies such as Casablanca, An American in Paris and Some Like it Hot where he designed one of Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic and sexy outfits. He became Bette Davis’ most relied upon costume designer early on in her career, she would refuse to do a film if he wasn’t designing her costumes. What made Orry-Kelly extraordinary and forward thinking was that while most studios at the time reused costumes to save money, he created costumes for the characters and the actors who were portraying them.
One to never forget his roots, Orry-Kelly visited Australia as often as he could and kept his thick Aussie accent, which must have seemed alien to the Old Hollywood elite. Throughout his time in Hollywood, Orry-Kelly spent his time writing a memoir of his experiences. Something that put Cary Grant on edge, who ended up being able to block the publication in the 1960s.
An alcoholic for many years, Orry-Kelly passed away from liver cancer in 1964. Cary Grant was a pallbearer at his funeral. May we never forget him, a boy with a dream who lived life to the absolute Hollywood hilt.