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Asked near the beginning of Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston what song she performed at the memorial for her close friend Roy Halston Frowick, Liza Minnelli says she didn’t: “It wasn’t about me.” Too bad writer-director-producer Whitney Sudler-Smith didn’t apply that thinking to his absorbing but irritatingly compromised documentary on the designer who revolutionized the American fashion industry and helped define New York’s glittering Studio 54 era.
This is a boom time for fashion docs. The September Issue, Valentino: The Last Emperor and Bill Cunningham New York combined rich core subjects with gripping narratives, offering thoughtfully contextualized portraits. And Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel garnered stellar word-of-mouth in festival premieres last fall and was picked up for release this year by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
As a subject, Halston is a gold mine. An Iowa transplant, he jumped from millinery into women’s wear, achieving overnight fame when he outfitted Jacqueline Kennedy in a pillbox hat and simple cloth coat for her husband’s 1961 presidential inauguration. The expansion of his business into everything from perfume to carpeting broke new licensing ground that built the mold for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and countless others. But bad business decisions tainted his stock, and his taste for hedonism took its toll; after dropping off the social map, he died in 1990 at 57 of AIDS-related cancer.
All that is lurchingly chronicled here. Like a wannabe Michael Moore, Sudler-Smith places himself center screen in a series of retro looks — with blond highlights and without, with porn ‘stache and without. Despite the urging of Minnelli to go for “the solid stuff, not the gossip,” his idea of a probing question is, “I mean, 54, how great was it?” And his patent lack of homework gets him amusingly reprimanded by fashion arbiter Andre Leon Talley. It’s clear the director, whose résumé includes the 2002 movie Torture TV, is a brat with the money and connections to buy great access but without the savvy to add his own analytical overview.
Ultrasuede doesn’t get much of a handle on Halston the man. Still, insights about his life and work come from Minnelli, who gushes but not without a point of view; fashion pundits Harold Koda and Cathy Horyn; and former Halston model Anjelica Huston. It seems a cruel irony, though, that Halston, whose contribution to fashion often has been overshadowed by the sensationalism of his meteoric rise and fall, should have his story told by a frivolous spotlight-seeker.
Director: Whitney Sudler-Smith
No rating, 93 minutes
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