Dressing-gowns are more versatile than you might think. They can signify both soigné upper-class superiority and unkempt low-life sleaze – sometimes both at once. They can be effete, artistic or slatternly – sometimes all at once. In films, the writer or musician often wears a form of dressing-gown while creating; obviously, pausing long enough to get dressed properly would give the elusive muse a chance to flee. But it can also a sign that the wearer has given up on life, is suffering from low self-esteem or can’t face the outside world – sometimes all at once. Or maybe it’s just a sign that the wearer doesn’t need to face the outside world – he has lackeys to do it for him.
Dressing-gown acting in films requires a certain fearlessness on the part of the actor, and enables the costume department to go to town. It positively encourages flamboyance and a demonstrative breaking down of barriers both social and sartorial.
Here, then, are ten examples of Dressing-Gown Acting that made me sit up and take notice.
BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
Alfred Molina, as drug dealer Rahad Jackson, fearlessly milks the open-dressing-gown-over-underpants-and-gold-chain look at the tense climax to Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of everyday porn actors. He also runs out into the street in it, firing a shotgun. Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Because he’s rich, decadent and a drug dealer, and drug dealers don’t need to get dressed. See also Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette in Pulp Fiction.
Claud Rains plays a classical composer and orchestral conductor called Alexander Hollenius, who has mad hair, a wicked way with a cigarette, plays the piano in his dressing-gown and pets his cat manaically. In fact, he never seems to bother getting dressed while at home, even when people are coming to see him; I guess some people might call this a smoking-jacket, but I’m calling it a dressing-gown and that’s that.
Here Hollenius is listening to recordings of the cellist (Paul Henreid) who has just married Hollenius’s “protégée” (Bette Davis). Note to younger readers: this is no way to treat 78s. Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Because he is a genius. And jealous. And mad. But above all, because it’s Claude Rains giving one of the most deliciously fruity performances in cinema history.
KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949)
Nothing says social-climbing more succinctly than the design of a fellow’s dressing-gown. Exhibit A: in the first picture Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) has just been dismissed from his job as a draper’s assistant and, clad in a bog-standard robe befitting his humble status, is calculating how many D’Ascoynes stand between him and the dukedom.
Exhibit B: even behind bars and mere hours away from being hanged for murder, Louis, now the Duke of Chalfont, exudes aristocratic nonchalance in a velvet dressing gown with stylish quilted lapels, the antithesis of the robe he was wearing earlier in the film. Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Louis is demonstrating that keeping up appearances is everything.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film of Nabokov’s novel may be preferable to Adrian Lyne’s version in many ways, especially for James Mason as Humbert Humbert and Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, but Lyne’s remake trumped it in some areas, not least Frank Langella’s magnificently creepy performance as Humbert’s alter-ego, Clare Quilty, which knocked spots off Peter Sellers’s jokey party turn, Sellers’s sublime dancing at the school ball notwithstanding.
Then again, Langella is one of the best actors in films, so it’s no shame to be out-Quiltied by him in this paedeophiliac showdown of gothic proportions, so out to lunch it almost makes the film worth catching on its own.
Of all the dressing-gown performances cited on this blog, Langella’s is the most fearless. He is wearing nothing underneath his robe and is not afraid to show it as he flees shrieking down the corridor, away from Humbert and his gun, or plonks himself down bare-buttocked at the piano to (apparently) bash out Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Because he’s rich, decadent, sleazy, a pornographer and a paedophile. And because he’s morally and mentally adrift.
THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942)
Monty Woolley (a friend of Cole Porter) plays egocentric and obnoxious radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on Alexander Woollcott, celebrated critic and member of the Algonquin Round Table) who slips on the icy steps outside the home of a prominent Ohio family. The family is then forced to put up with him recuperating from a broken leg in their home over the Christmas holidays.
As can be seen from this pictures, Whiteside models a variety of loud dressing-gowns and smoking jackets, dominating the home of Mr and Mrs Stanley not just with his overbearing personality but with his sartorial choices. Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Because he’s an invalid (albeit one who is exaggerating his injury). And because he’s a media star from the big city who can do as he pleases when visiting the provinces.
Here we see Leslie Howard teaming his dressing-gown with a professorial pipe in Anthony Asquith’s film of the play by George Bernard Shaw, which also served as the basis for the musical My Fair Lady, and for which Shaw and his co-writers won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Yes! GBS won an Oscar!
Howard plays Professor Higgins, a professor of phonetics so arrogant that he doesn’t think twice about receiving visitors, especially ones form the lower classes, in such a state of casual semi-dress. Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Because he’s too busy being a boffin to worry about putting on clothes.
SECRET WINDOW (2004)
Johnny Depp plays Mort Rainey in David Koepp’s film of a novella by Stephen King. Rainey is recovering from a breakdown after discovering his wife was having an affair. Now he’s hanging out in a secluded cabin in rural upstate New York, suffering from depression and writer’s block. As if that weren’t enough, a weird fellow turns up on his doorstep and accuses him of plagiarism.
Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Are you kidding? Divorce, depression, writer’s block, plus his dog is stabbed to death. Why would he not wear a dressing-gown? Depp, of course, manages to rock the dishevelled look, but the dressing-gown is well-chosen and grungy rather than sexy.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1950)
Interesting to note this is the third film on this list in which the protagonist is pitted against his alter-ego, and the third film in which the character’s homosexuality is either implicit or implied. Perhaps in these cases the dressing-gown signifies unfettered immorality, a case of daring to dabble where the more repressed individual wouldn’t dream of dabbling. Or not.
In any case, Bruno Anthony’s dressing-gown only confirms everything you suspected of this character: he’s a sociopathic murderer who will stop at nothing. Just look at him. Why is he wearing a dressing-gown? Because he lives with his mother.
WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN (1957)
As you may have noticed, all the other examples of dressing-gown acting on this page are of men. Women in films don’t wear dressing-gowns so much as peignoirs, deshabillés or wrappers, fine examples of which are so numerous that even a cursory selection would fill several blogs, so I thought seriously about limiting the choice exclusively to male characters.
But how could I possibly ignore a film that actually includes the term “dressing gown” in the title? Not only that, but what Yvonne Mitchell is wearing could never ever be described as a “peignoir”. It’s a dressing-gown. Why is she wearing a dressing-gown? Because she’s suffering from a clear case of clinical depression, because her husband is having an affair with a younger woman and is asking her for a divorce. Duh.
WONDER BOYS (1995)
Michael Douglas plays Gray Tripp, a professor of creative writing at a Pittsburgh university whose first novel was a big success. But that was seven years ago (although take it from me – seven years is chickenfeed in writers’ years). Tripp’s writer’s block takes a different form to that of Mort Rainey in Secret Window – he’s on Page 2611 of his second novel, and there’s still no end in sight. Curtis Hanson’s campus yarn, adapted from the novel by Michael Chabon, shows Tripps’ life going into freefall one winter weekend as he shambles around in a grotty dressing-gown.