"You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn't know who he is?" runs a line early in this splendidly entertaining film about three-time Oscar winner, costume designer Orry-Kelly. (You'll have to see the film to find out what that hyphen is doing there).
The speaker is Ann Roth, herself an Oscar-winner (for The English Patient), who started out working for Kelly. And among the very many Australians who hadn't heard of him was the veteran and prolific Armstrong (My Brilliant Career; Little Women).
"When I read his credits I'm like, 'What? An Australian did Some Like It Hot and Casablanca?" Armstrong told SBS. "And none of us know him?"
This hugely affectionate film does its best to rescue from undeserved obscurity a man who would have probably won many more Oscars were it not that most of the 300 films he dressed were made before the costume design category was introduced in 1949.
By that time, the boy from Kiama on the south coast of NSW, who had made it to Hollywood via Sydney and New York, had passed his peak. But what a peak it was.
Armstrong's film is, indirectly, a valentine to a bygone age of Hollywood when star power was about glamour and costumes made characters. It cleverly mixes modern-day talking heads (including actors, notably Jane Fonda, that he looked after) with generous excerpts from films he worked on. But even more aptly, it adds theatrical re-enactments in which Kelly and his Mum, impersonated by actors, address the camera.
The source of the words they used isn't divulged until the end, and I won't spoil the surprise here, except to say it makes for a cracker sign-off. Smartly, too, Armstrong uses not a single shot, moving or still, of her subject until the last minutes: she thinks, as he did, that his work spoke for him.
Beware of dismissing this as a film for gown-and-frock geeks: it's an entrancing and highly informative, not to mention eye-poppingly beautiful, celebration of an unsung hero of the silver screen and hard to recommend too highly.
PG (nudity and coarse language)
Not just for gown geeks