The five-episode limited series Halston, directed by Daniel Minahan and starring Ewan McGregor as the eponymous American fashion designer, which arrives on Netflix today, is a stylish and engaging biography based on Steven Gaines’ book Simply Halston. Straight forward narratively, it does at times feel more ready-to-wear than haute couture, but nevertheless features some beautifully crafted moments and terrific acting performances.
We first meet Roy Halston Frowick as a child in 1930s rural Indiana, making hats to cheer up his mother who’s suffering through an abusive marriage. Cut to January 1961 and the First Lady and style icon Jackie Kennedy is attending her husband’s inauguration wearing a pillbox hat by milliner Halston, marking a breakthrough moment in the designer’s illustrious, groundbreaking, and at times tumultuous career.
With an ambitious vision to build the first American couturier on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in 1968 Halston assembles a creative team of fellow “merry misfits” as he describes them, “a bunch of queers and freaks and girls who haven’t grown up yet”. They include the Tony-winning theatre set designer and fashion illustrator, later creative director Joe Eula (David Pittu); model, muse, and jewelry designer Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan); his junior partner whose work as a window dresser he’d admired, a speed-shooting Joel Schumacher (yes, that Joel Schumacher, played by Rory Culkin); and Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) whom he immediately accuses of dressing like a young girl when he’s introduced to her, and quickly becomes another muse, close confidant, and loyal friend. The portrayal of their friendship is particularly touching and enjoyable, and McGregor reportedly met with Minnelli when preparing to play the legendary designer to get an insight into their relationship. Although Rodriguez does resemble Liza with her different images over the decades, the actress makes the character her own, humanizing the icon, without a hint of caricature; and does a damn fine Say Liza (Liza with a Z).
Already well-established, but in dire need of a further injection of funds to keep his venture going in the early 70s, commerce meets art with the arrival of businessman David Mahoney (Bill Pullman) who promises to make Halston synonymous with American fashion and a household name. Initially hesitant, when he signs on with Mahoney the Halston name is used across an expansive range of lines including menswear, luggage, bedding, lingerie, and a fragrance. In a nice stylistic flourish McGregor as Halston recreates television ads directly introducing each new line to the viewer.
McGregor pulls off the tricky task of portraying a character who has created a public persona, which he projects even to his boyfriend and those in his inner circle—the slicked back hair, bronzer, sunglasses, black turtleneck sweater, and mannered voice—managing to simultaneously show us the man the behind the mask even when Halston is playing Halston. A Gatsbyesque self-made American hero, talking about his “magical childhood” in Indiana, his name becomes a brand in itself. As the series goes on, things take a tragic turn as he becomes more distracted by and dependent on drugs, and nights out at Studio 54, and gradually loses sight of who he is as the lines begin to blur between the real Halston and his persona, eventually having to fight for ownership of his own name.
Fully inhabiting the man, Ewan McGregor gives a rich, layered portrayal that captures Halston’s artistic passion. In fact, it feels like there’s a real tour de force performance in there, but we only get glimpses of it. Somehow the series doesn’t always provide the best showcase for McGregor’s work, perhaps something is lost in its commitment to chronology and detailing all the facts, which at times results in a tone that’s a little flat, rather like documentary recreations. Within those scenes which do allow us to see how committed he is to the role, however, there are some sublime moments.
One of the most emotionally potent sections of the film features Vera Farmiga as perfumer Adele. Almost like therapy sessions, these scenes offer a fascinating insight into the creation of a fragrance and the emotional resonance of scent, and allow us to see a reluctantly open and vulnerable Halston. Although he refuses to extinguish his cigarette while creating his fragrance, he does the homework she asks of him—to bring scents that are meaningful to him—and offers daffodils, relating to memories of his mother, along with a used jockstrap belonging to his boyfriend Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez); a gesture that’s surprisingly touching and revealing. The occasional flashbacks as Halston recalls his starkly different individual relationships with his parents are resonant and add depth to the character study, delving behind the facade.
Co-written by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan—along with Sharr White, Ted Malawer, Tim Pinckney, and Kristina Woo across various episodes—the dialogue itself is often weighed on the side of exposition, but there’s a well-balanced focus between Halston’s work and personal life, with a satisfyingly insightful window into his creative inspiration and processes, particularly his collaboration with Joe Eula. Pittu shines every moment he’s on screen as Eula, bringing warmth, humour, and nuance to the role, and has a great on screen rapport with McGregor; we truly believe in their friendship which is tested at times. With his phenomenal success and as the drugs take hold, Halston seems unable to support his friends in ventures that don’t involve him. He can’t stand to hear what Peretti has achieved in her career away from him, and when Joe wants to share the songs from his new Studio 54-inspired disco musical, Halston is full of derision for the venture, scoffing and making him turn the music off. As Halston shuts it out, we also find out very little about the artistic work being done by his hustler boyfriend Victor Hugo (his invented last name isn’t so much a nod to the author, as an advertisement of how well-endowed his is, “Huge-oh“). Gian Franco Rodriguez brings a deliciously over-the-top fiery and volatile passion to Victor, and we never know quite what to make of him.
The scenes which give us a flavour of Halston’s sex life are well handled, and offer an exploration of his character, from to Halston cruising on the Westside piers, to his intimate but behind-closed-doors relationship with Ed Austin (Sullivan Jones)—who later became a designer in his own right—to his more public relationship with Victor, who we see trawl mens restrooms looking for trade to pay to bring home for Halston.
Although fairly brief, the Studio 54 scenes are a delight and richly atmospheric. It feels like a real place, not a studio set, and we get a sense of the layout of the iconic club, complete with sex going on up in the balconies and down in the VIP basement. It’s also the location of a dramatic and poignant scene between Halston and Peretti (wonderfully played by Dayan) who’s become frustrated by her unrequited romantic love for the gay man and his at times cold and dismissive treatment of her.
Fittingly, some of the best scenes of the series capture the sense of pressure as a fashion show nears, giving us a tangible insight into the work involved. Minahan and his cinematographers—William Rexer in episode one and Tim Ives in the subsequent episodes—beautifully convey the texture of the fabrics Halston uses, as they flow around the studio before being draped and cut. There’s also a real sense that the creative team know each other intimately, with great chemistry between the ensemble. In the second episode, there’s a particularly fun and eventful section of the series where Halston and his entourage take part in a Paris fashion show fundraiser for Versailles.
With only five episodes, the series feels a bit truncated and might have benefited from turning its focus to a specific phase the designer’s life. Undoubtedly a worthwhile watch though, Halston is an evenhanded personal portrait and a tribute to the designer’s talent that both entertains and reasserts his unquestionable place in the history of American fashion.
By James Kleinmann
All five episodes of limited series Halston are available globally on Netflix from today, Friday May 14th.