Halston is streaming on Netflix.

The rise and fall of the American designer Halston touches so many of the cultural pressure-points of the 70s and 80s it was bound to get miniseries treatment sooner or later. His fashion skills wrested the attention of American consumers away from the European names that dominated the field, to create a brand allure that expanded into perfumes and homeware to make him a household name.

But his self-created stylish image hid contradictions: Roy Halston Frowick was an Iowa country boy who became dressmaker to Hollywood’s A-list, and a mainstream media figure who covertly enjoyed the era’s gay sexual freedoms and coke-fuelled excess. With the advent of the 80s he fell off the corporate rollercoaster he’d ridden to fund his success, and, like so many of his generation, succumbed to the first wave of Aids.

Put all that together, and the Halston story has the potential for an epic disco-couture amalgam of The Great Gatsby and the De Palma Scarface (1983). Unfortunately, this latest fruit of producer Ryan Murphy’s deal with Netflix proves stronger on promise than execution.

Centre stage is Ewan McGregor, tasked with embodying the legend himself across five episodes. The things the actor generally does well, he does well here; with confident, shoulders-back swaggering physicality and plenty of mischief in the bitchy one-liners, he keeps just the right side of camp excess. Emotional authenticity has never been McGregor’s forte, though here that’s less of an issue, since Halston for the most part keeps his vulnerability hidden.

Halston (2021)

Still, we’re always aware of how hard the actor is working to maintain his poise – unlike his real-life subject, as seen in Frédéric Tcheng’s definitive 2019 documentary Halston, where the designer’s unflappable, imperious public persona left you fascinated by the question of what lay beneath the impenetrable ‘Halston’ façade. Some of that intrigue registers in his fictional incarnation, but the risks of placing an enclosed, emotionally withholding, sentiment-averse protagonist at the heart of an extended drama become clear. How can we care about this man when he remains seemingly unknowable even to those close to him?

Working from Stephen Gaines’s biography Simply Halston (1991), and without the family input that gave authority to Tcheng’s doc, lead writer Ian Brennan has opted for a standard action-highlights approach to the life, from Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, which Halston designed while still a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, through to the famed Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973, at which he outshone his French and American couture rivals, and including the iconic teardrop bottle design that made his first perfume a historic best-seller.

Experienced TV director Daniel Minahan keeps it all fizzing along, but amid all the buzzy fabulousness it doesn’t quite make the dramatic turning-points pay off. The pivotal significance of Halston’s sale of his name to the Norton Simon conglomerate somewhat slips by – and even if Halston’s too distracted by expanded market opportunities to grasp what this means, the audience needs to be alerted more emphatically that this is a wilful, career-defining misjudgement.

Halston (2021)

As the cocaine intake and expense-account extravagance escalates, and his relationship with volatile Venezuelan rent-boy-turned-boyfriend Victor Hugo turns even more acrid, Halston is his own worst enemy, and while this plays out with the horrifying magnetism of some slowly developing auto pile-up, it’s hard to have much sympathy for someone so much the author of his own downfall.

By the final episode, realisation of his own culpability at last kicks in, and there’s a hint of emotional resonance (created in no small part by the bravura, unexpected use of a Cocteau Twins music cue), but it’s late in coming, and can’t quite dispel the sense of a brisk skim through the biography. It’s semi-diverting on a moment-by-moment basis, but lacks the controlling, creative insight that would allow the personal tragedy and cultural significance to register meaningfully behind the swirl of beautiful clothes, Studio 54 beats and endless white powder.

There’s really only one section which steps out of the pedestrian obviousness holding sway elsewhere, and that’s the surprisingly affecting vignette in which the perfumer (Vera Farmiga, a killer guest spot), helping Halston construct his new scent, causes deep, perhaps suppressed childhood memories (the tang of dad’s shaving cream, etc) to rise movingly to the surface.

Is Halston’s self-destructive hunger for more and more material success rooted in some essential insecurity or self-loathing fostered by growing up gay, different and isolated? Is he hobbled for life by the toxic legacy of his rural upbringing? There are certainly troubling implications here, a much darker reading of the past than the alternative-universe gay-friendly 50s conjured up last year by Murphy’s mini-series Hollywood. Halston brings up this implication without making the effort to follow through, preferring ultimately to give this battered survivor a final-reel dignified serenity. There’s a note of grace in the closure, but the storytelling falls tentatively short of what it should have been.

Further reading

Hollywood review: Ryan Murphy rewrites post-war Tinseltown history

By Trevor Johnston

Hollywood review: Ryan Murphy rewrites post-war Tinseltown history

Ratched review: Ken Kesey’s Big Nurse gets botched surgery

By Hannah McGill

Ratched review: Ken Kesey’s Big Nurse gets botched surgery

Costume drama: Sandy Powell on designing the costumes for The Irishman

By Isabel Stevens

Costume drama: Sandy Powell on designing the costumes for The Irishman

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Originally published: 1 June 2021