Critic’s Chair: Guy Somerset watches Halston, the Netflix five-part series on the life and excesses of the American fashion designer, and Neon’s timely running of Halston, the documentary
Late to the office one day this week? What was it? Ten? Maybe even eleven? Relax. Pioneering elite American fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick – known universally as simply Halston in an act of self-branding of which his longtime friend Andy Warhol doubtless approved – often didn’t roll up until four in the afternoon.
Then he might put in an hour or two of half-hearted work before breaking for dinner. Here, you can feel better about your take-away habits. That Chinese or Indian you had last night is a negligible indulgence compared with the three-course fine-dining experiences Halston had prepared and delivered to his Manhattan workplace or townhouse by one of New York’s top restaurants. If he was at his beach house, the meal was flown to him by seaplane. It wasn’t always fine dining. Sometimes it was just a baked potato.
It was the eighties, says one of Halston’s minions by way of explanation. But much of his behaviour predated the eighties and, in any case, even by the standards of that decade he took excess to the nth degree. People could easily have said the eighties were a bit Halston.
Halston is the latest subject of television producer extraordinaire Ryan Murphy’s ongoing thin-slicing of gay culture, which has given us everything from Hollywood and The Assassination of Gianni Versace to camp-fests such as American Horror Story and Feud – Bette and Joan. One never knows which aspect of gay life Murphy will alight on next. As the slicing gets thinner and thinner, I am holding out for Feud – Mr Humphries and Captain Peacock: The John Inman Story. Maybe Hudson and Halls will finally get their global due.
With Halston, Murphy has encountered a subject that is too much even for him. The life Halston led, the success he enjoyed and the superstar friends he hung out with were on a scale with which Murphy’s budget and imagination cannot cope. His five-part dramatisation – written by Sharr White and directed by Daniel Minahan – has a decent stab at the sublime sixties and seventies couture and the amazing architectural settings. Waspish witticisms abound and there are some terrific performances. But when you watch director Frédéric Tcheng’s 2019 documentary film about Halston, which Neon is helpfully/mischievously streaming to coincide with Murphy’s Netflix show, the shortcomings are all too evident.
The dramatisation both plays it broad and narrows the story down, focusing mostly on the sex, drugs and Halston’s increasing alienation from friends and colleagues, as well as from his own talent.
Broadest of all is Ewan McGregor as Halston. Russell T Davies, something of a British equivalent to Murphy, albeit a classier one, said recently that only gay actors should play gay roles and that straight actors doing so is like blackface. There is something uneasy about McGregor as Halston. His is a hetero, actorly performance of ‘gayness’. He’s having too much of a self-conscious good time vamping it up, swishing around in the over-the-top period clothes and uttering lines that are by turns sassy, withering or both. The real Halston was regal, to be sure, and both self-satisfied and self-loathing; but he stopped subtly short of McGregor’s mannered vocal and physical depiction. Murphy, however, isn’t one for subtlety. Nip/Tuck, anyone?
Halston, as we see, and hear about him from his models and other friends, in Tcheng’s documentary, was also a lot warmer and less remote. Yes, he could treat people abominably, and a proposed manual for his staff recommended they be “trained to cope with fear”. But there was more charisma and kindness than McGregor and the show allow. He also maintained family connections the Netflix show doesn’t touch on and wasn’t nearly so isolated as the show suggests.
The actors playing Halston’s entourage, and the roles drawn for them, are better modulated. Gilmore Girls fans will relish that show’s starchy matriarch Emily Gilmore (the peerless Kelly Bishop) going full Bette Davis on us as one of Halston’s rich benefactors, with the added attraction of lines such as: “You’re going to come to Versailles and you’re going to blow those snobby French motherfuckers off the stage.” And: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and take a shit in it.” Richard Gilmore will be spinning in his grave.
Krysta Rodriguez is remarkably, well, Liza Minnelli as Liza Minnelli, whether singing or telling Halston: “Throw your little fit and grab your smelling salts, and haul your cheeks off the fucking fainting couch and you march that tight fabulous ass back in there.”
Bill Pullman is remarkably, well, Bill Pullman as the dull businessman who bankrolls Halston and sets in train his ruin, with the viewer left as bored by their encounters as Halston himself.
As much as Halston is ruined by business overreach – literally selling his name so he cannot use it himself ever again in a professional context; going from dressing high-society women to all of America through a deal with the declassé Farmers equivalent J.C. Penney – he is also ruined after his head is turned by Studio 54.
It is the nose on his head that is turned most – towards the cocaine and poppers of the celebrity disco scene. Out goes his hitherto exemplary work regime; in comes all those four o’clock starts and his descent into decadence without limit. One can’t help but think the mirror walls he insists on in the fit-out of his offices are emblematic. The wrong way up for snorting nose candy off, though.
The show is at its best when capturing the peak of that work regime and delighting in the creative process at the heart of Halston’s genius, whether the making of dresses, of a perfume, or of the bottle to put the perfume in (although the last is mainly down to the genius of one of his off-siders, revered jeweller Elsa Peretti).
Halston could throw a piece of fabric on the floor, wield his scissors for a few moments, and then arise to drape a gown of unsurpassable beauty over the frame of one of his models (of also unsurpassable beauty). It makes for quite a spectacle. One I, at least, could watch over and over again. Fabric to Halston was, as someone says, like clay to a sculptor. When reassured he can make something good in an hour, he demurs: “No, but I can make something great.”
Fantastic though the Netflix show can look, expensive as it must have been, Tcheng’s documentary wins out with its astonishing archive of photographs and video recordings of Halston at his most fabulous (including a guest spot on The Love Boat, such was his fame, and a mammoth groundbreaking tour of China). He doesn’t seem to have ever been photographed badly, whether in colour or black and white. Has there ever been a man who wore a polo neck more elegantly? Even a man as attractive as McGregor can’t match his sleek but chiselled suavity.
The grandeur of Halston’s life and work – the grandeur of even his decline – is beyond the smallness of Murphy and co. Some of that is inevitable, some of it is down to their approach.
In the show’s scene of Halston hearing about a bridge-and-tunneler found dead in an air vent, having become trapped trying to circumvent the velvet-roped exclusivity of Studio 54, he is told: “And that’s not the worst part. She was wearing Calvin Klein.”
The line, the timing of the punchline, and the mugging on McGregor’s face on hearing it, suggests my Are You Being Served? suggestion for Murphy’s trajectory might not be so fanciful.
But the snobbishness, combined with rivalry, the scene seeks to demonstrate was real enough – and you’d have to be a sour-puss to begrudge Halston it.
Before he succumbs to selling his name, and soul, for incalculable riches and commercial ubiquity, he has to be persuaded of the wisdom of doing so, in the first instance to Max Factor which is “accessible to everyone”.
“That’s what I’m saying, David. If everybody can have something, what’s the point of having it?”
The world was a better place for having Halston in it and, for all the flaws of the former, is a better place for having him in it again thanks to Ryan Murphy’s mini-series and Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary.
They, and he, are not for everybody. And Halston wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Halston the drama (Netflix); Halston the documentary (Neon).