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Netflix’s new five-part miniseries Halston is such a psychologically superficial portrait of the mononymous fashion icon that I invariably turn to one of my favorite critical pursuits: psychoanalyzing Ryan Murphy through his Netflix shows.
Halston is, after all, the story of an acclaimed genius who, having sold his brand and possibly his soul, comes to realize that the only things that truly matter to him are his art and positive reviews. The fifth episode of Halston is even named “Critics,” a cheeky choice for a show with critical reactions embargoed to day-of-premiere.
And before you say, “But Ryan Murphy is only one key creative figure on Halston, along with frequent collaborator Ian Brennan, Sharr White and series director Daniel Minahan,” that’s what Halston is about as well — how when your name and your brand become intertwined, the credit for every success, however collaborative, goes to you, as does the blame for any failure.
The series traces — actually, it doesn’t trace anything. Like a public speaker who slips down the steps while carrying his next lecture on notecards, leaving some cards out of order and others lost in the stairwell, Halston picks and chooses key moments in Roy Halston Frowick’s (Ewan McGregor) journey from chapeau-loving Indiana child to the creator of such innovations as Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat; ultrasuede; every outfit Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) ever wore; and, of course, Halston-branded carpeting. From there, it’s a predictable descent into corporate betrayals, personal betrayals and all imaginable forms of ’80s excess, including cocaine, promiscuous sex, cocaine, carousing at Studio 54, cocaine, egomaniacal temper tantrums and cocaine.
Over five episodes, the series is littered with incidents that seem like they could be focal events if only Halston had focus, or structuring devices if only the show had structure.
Take, for example, 1973’s Battle of Versailles, in which an all-star crew of French designers faced off against an American design dream team in a series of fashion shows to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles. It’s been featured in several documentaries and it’s ideal kibble for an entire installment of Murphy’s Feud, but the second Halston episode, despite featuring the great Kelly Bishop as fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, runs out of interest in less than 44 minutes.
Or take Halston’s encounter with a sensualist parfumier (Vera Farmiga with an amusingly hammy accent), whose efforts to help the designer make his signature fragrance provoke a series of flashbacks. This is a great idea, since Halston’s perfume was among his greatest financial successes and because Farmiga, accent aside, is many times more compelling than most of the show’s guest stars. The whole show could have been built around this moment and these flashbacks, but despite using Steven Gaines’ Simply Halston as source material, Halston has neither insight nor curiosity into Halston’s Midwestern upbringing. We get a sketch of Halston as a lonely boy fixated on his mother and terrified by an abusive father that would be reductive whether or not you knew that Halston had a group of siblings who have been shepherding his legacy since his death, and — in addition to having no participation here — have been completely erased. For a show obsessed with the idea of Halston’s brand, this miniseries couldn’t have less to say about how his identity was shaped, preferring to present the designer as a compilation of clichés instead of intriguingly enigmatic.
There are bursts in which the writing, but mostly really Minahan’s direction, is able to zero in on parts of Halston’s process, peaking in a fifth-episode collaboration with Martha Graham that was the only time in the series I felt an iota of emotion. Mostly, though, Halston being Halston is reduced to Halston being told in declarative sentences that he’s Halston; Halston explaining to people in florid terms that he’s Halston; and the occasional musical montage interspersed with cocaine snorting. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the better part of two solid episodes alternates between Halston doing coke and various characters — principally Bill Pullman’s David Mahoney, David Pittu’s Joe Eula or Rebecca Dayan’s Elsa Peretti — telling Halston he’s doing so much cocaine that it’s keeping him from being Halston. It’s very pointed how often people in Halston say “Halston,” but it’s also close to parody.
But Halston isn’t parody, nor is it exactly camp. It gets close to the latter, especially any time Gian Franco Rodriguez, in a frequently ludicrous performance as Halston’s frequently ludicrous lover Victor Hugo, shows up to deliver dialogue like, “Only difference with Mr. Les Misérables is that nobody ever called him Victor Huge-o. I’ll make your fucking dreams come true, baby.” Minahan’s reliably sleek exteriors and the consistently chic costume design choices could have embraced either camp or sincere admiration, but the uncomfortable middle ground here isn’t ideal. Might the overall sense of overindulgence have been more convincing had it been produced in pre-COVID times? Possibly, since I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the peak of Studio 54 depicted with such socially distanced austerity.
That middle ground is where McGregor’s performance resides as well. Halston’s affected voice is such a strange thing and even if McGregor doesn’t nail it exactly, he captures its strangeness. The narrative is so gap-laden that he’s generally either shouting and wailing or else being weirdly quiet, with a ubiquitous glamorous cigarette as the only note of consistency. It’s all only as good as the dialogue, which isn’t nearly as catty and colorful as you know the Murphy factory is capable of. One key scene in which Halston tells each member of a board room to fuck themselves will, as a meme, doubtlessly outlive everything else in this series.
Supporting players come and go and you don’t always know why. Rory Culkin is a hoot in the first episode as Joel Schumacher — yes, that Joel Schumacher — and then he’s never seen again. I guess it’s supposed to be the theme that Dayan and Pittu, as key members of Halston’s team, are compelling yet too often forgotten, which doesn’t mean I have to like it. I really respect that Rodriguez skips the most obviously cartoonish details of a bad Liza Minnelli impression, and for that reason I expect some complaints that she isn’t Liza-y enough.
Halston is not as bizarrely conceived as Ratched or as maddeningly inconsistent (and finally bad) as The Politician, but it’s lacking enough in perspective and structure to make one wonder about the sort of creative nurturing the Ryan Murphy brand is getting at Netflix — and if he, like his version of Halston, isn’t starting to miss creating for the sake of art and the rave reviews.
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