By Peg Aloi
There are stunning scenes full of energy and visual beauty, but Halston left me feeling somewhat cold.
I’ve written earlier columns in which I have in no uncertain terms declared, more or less, that Ryan Murphy must be stopped. Still, I found myself looking forward to Halston. Possibly because my interest in the designer was piqued by the excellent documentary that came out in 2019, directed by Frédéric Tcheng. Possibly because, despite my issues with the uneven quality of the writing in Murphy’s productions, his depiction of the fashion world — in 2018’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace — has been closely observed and spot-on. Also, the costume design in the American Horror Story anthology, Hollywood – Feud, and in Ratched, was stellar. My hope was that Halston might make a particularly engaging subject — at the very least the series would be pretty to look at. Then there was the casting of Ewan McGregor as Halston, a world-class actor who hasn’t done any major roles recently.
Eric Halston is introduced via a familiar conceit by Murphy and executive producer/writer Sharr White and director Daniel Minehan (who has also worked on Game of Thrones and The Assassination of Gianni Versace). The first scene dramatizes an iconic moment in the protagonist’s career (in this case, Halston’s first brush with fame in 1961 as the designer of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, when he was a milliner). This scene is followed by a short glimpse at Halston’s childhood, a smidgen of origin story. Halston, who grew up in an Indiana farmhouse, made hats for his mother out of found objects. Once he tastes fame, however, Halston leaves the heartland behind: he discards his first name, a gesture that establishes his chic individuality.
As we enter the ’70s, the upheaval in fashion reflects unsettled times. Halston sees that women are no longer wearing hats, so he decides to design dresses. His first runway show is a flop: the dresses are too structural and formal. Soon after that, an assistant brings Halston a bolt of fabric that he’s been dyeing — the cloth inspires Halston to create a floaty, simple gown that will become his signature look. He is his company’s guiding force, but Halston collaborates with a number of trusted colleagues, including Joe Eula, his illustrator and creative director (played by David Pittu), his top model and confidante Elsa Peretti (Tesla’s Rebecca Dayan plays this role with mercurial wit and grace), and showbiz friends such as vocalist Liza Minnelli (an impressive turn by Krysta Rodriguez). Halston told Minnelli that her stage costume made her look like a little girl; after that, she insisted Halston design all of her clothes. A brief romantic fling with the handsome, classy Ed (Sullivan Jones) becomes too intense for Halston’s guarded heart, but he keeps him close by giving him an important position in the company. Eula is the designer’s right-hand man, but also his enabler, once Halston’s drive to become an iconic celebrity leads to a chaotic nightlife of drugs, sex, and debauchery. Halston revels in being welcomed to the exclusive Studio 54, and his brash, manipulative lover Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez) insinuates himself into Halston’s once orderly existence, which begins to crumble.
The trajectory of Halston’s career rise and fall charts more than the vicissitudes of fashion or drug use. It reflects the ups and downs of his personal relationships. As in other Murphy productions, the focus is on gay identity, sex, activism, and culture, including pervasive themes of self-loathing and shame among closeted gay men. Narratives that take place during the AIDS crisis, as this one does, emphasize that crisis of self-hatred, the fear of discovery, the shame of being accused and judged. In this case, tabloid revelations of the designer’s relationships with escorts adds another sordid layer to Halston’s already deteriorating reputation and psyche. Mirroring his downward slide, McGregor’s Halston begins to wear a bright red trench coat in almost every scene. Oddly enough, despite the colorful fashions, the production design for Halston is markedly devoid of bright colors, at least when compared to the garish hues of Ratched or various installments of American Horror Story. The bright red stands out (to viewers) like a warning beacon, perhaps a signifier of the ultimately dangerous turn Halston’s life takes once drug use overwhelms his commitment to designing. He ends up making some hasty business decisions that have disastrous consequences for his work and legacy.
Halston does not disappoint, but it doesn’t quite soar as it should. There are stunning scenes full of energy and visual beauty. The production design by Mark Ricker (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is scrupulous. Still, this series left me feeling somewhat cold. The performances are generally excellent, but McGregor’s letter-perfect portrayal, which embraces Halston’s well-known tendency to put on airs and speak in an affected manner, is self-defeating. His imitation is almost too precise to be plausible. And the series tries a bit too hard, via expository background, to explain (or justify?) Halston’s inscrutability.
But there is one character whose presence illuminates Halston. Vera Farmiga plays a perfumer who collaborates with the designer to create his own signature scent. During the process, she shows Halston that perfume is linked to memory. This Proustian conceit leads the designer to understand and then embrace his repressed childhood trauma and unconscious proclivities. It’s an intriguing variation on the usual psychotherapy motif, and Farmiga is very effective in what might have been a minor role. I’d have liked to see more of this kind of exploration, a sympathetic effort to tease out the roots of Halston’s creative genius. Unfortunately, Halston’s brilliance is accepted as a given, a constant, and this superficiality overlooks its obvious fragility and vulnerability.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.