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NEW YORK – 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 the hard-partying New York glitterati of the Studio 54 era.
This is a boom time for quality fashion docs. The September Issue and Valentino: The Last Emperor combined rich core subjects with gripping narratives that unfolded as filming was undertaken, picking up where Douglas Keeve’s Isaac Mizrahi study, Unzipped, left off in 1995. Bill Cunningham New York, L’Amour Fou about Yves Saint Laurent, and Vidal Sassoon: The Movie all offered 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 documentary goldmine. 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 dizzying expansion of his business into an empire that encompassed everything from perfumes to home carpeting broke new licensing ground that built the mold for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and countless others. Halston’s minimalist chic style remains highly influential today.
But bad business decisions – relinquishing control of his name, launching an affordable line through JC Penney just as ‘80s ostentation was taking hold of the industry – tainted his stock. At the same time, his taste for hedonistic extravagance began taking its toll; after dropping off the social map, he died in 1990 at 57 of AIDS-related cancer.
All that is lurchingly chronicled here, almost despite the clumsiness of Sudler-Smith’s investigative methods. His patent lack of homework gets him amusingly rapped on the knuckles by fashion arbiter André Leon Talley. The suspicion that the impetus for this project didn’t go much deeper than ‘70s=cool seems confirmed when Sudler-Smith grills his mother, the socialite Patricia Altschul, about the roots of his obsession with the decade. Underlining the fluffiness of this vanity project, she reflects that he loved watching Smokey and the Bandit as a kid. Fascinating.
Sudler-Smith’s interview technique is painfully amateurish, and 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?” or “How crazy was it then?”
Like a wannabe Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, Sudler-Smith places himself centerscreen in a series of retro looks – with blond highlights/without, with porn ‘stache/without, with aviator sunglasses/without. He zooms around town in his sleek black vintage Pontiac Trans Am, making his Halston quest a personal pilgrimage. Is there intended self-parody in him screeching into a parking spot out front of the Metropolitan Museum to interview Costume Institute curator Harold Koda? Hard to say. What’s clear is that the director is a brat with the money and connections to buy great access, but without the savvy to add his own analytical overview.
That means the pilot of the project just comes across as a silly fan, though Sudler-Smith is careful to avoid being misrepresented as a fawning fashion queen. He points out more than once that he was drawn to “the glamour and the girls.” In one especially cringe-inducing moment outside the big tent at Bryant Park during Fashion Week, he explains that this is where major designers come to unveil their collections and “where dudes like me come to check out the models.”
He relies on his editor, John Paul Horstmann, who also gets a researcher credit, to formulate the film’s thesis, along with an impressive assembly of Halston cronies, fashion commentators and colorful scenesters. Ultrasuede doesn’t get much of a handle on Halston the man. But some of the more illuminating insights about his life and work come from Minnelli, who gushes but not without a point of view; fashion pundits Koda, Talley and Cathy Horyn; former Halston model Anjelica Huston; and journalist Bob Colacello.
It’s also fun watching one-time Warhol party-boy twins Richard and Robert Dupont dish about the decadent old days. Nile Rodgers shares an anecdote about the genesis of Chic’s definitive disco superhit “Le Freak,” hatched when he and bandmate Bernard Edwards were shut out of Studio 54 because Grace Jones forgot to put them on the door list.
There’s a bounty of fabulous archive material, both photographic and video, that evokes the 1970s and early ‘80s, as well as a tasty playlist of disco-era tracks from music supervisor Thomas Golubic. But it seems the ultimate cruel irony that Halston, whose mammoth contribution to creating an American fashion industry has been too often overshadowed by the flashy-trashy sensationalism of his meteoric rise and fall, should have his story recounted by a frivolous spotlight seeker.
Opens: Jan. 20 (Tribeca Film)
Production companies: Vainglorious Pictures
Director: Whitney Sudler-Smith
Screenwriters: Whitney Sudler-Smith, Anne Goursaud
Producers: Whitney Sudler-Smith, Anne Goursaud, Tim Maloney, Nicholas Simon
Executive producers: Shawn Simon, Mark Urman
Director of photography: Scott MillerMusic: Christopher Franke, Edgar Rothermich
Editor: John Paul Horstmann
No rating: 93 minutes
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