Family members of Roy Halston Frowick, the man mononymously known as Halston, put out a statement this week denouncing the Ryan Murphy-produced biographical series on his life, calling it “unauthorized” and inaccurate and noting that they weren’t consulted in any way. This is neither a sin nor a selling point for a biography, although there’s a very good argument to be made that if you want to tell the story of a self-destructive genius, turning to the people most likely to protect his image might not yield the most honest or truthful depiction. Knowing the man’s story (specifically, how many drugs he did, how many men he fucked, the endless parties he went to, and the relationships he tested), it didn’t concern us in the least that his family wasn’t consulted in the telling it. Halston was a difficult man with a messy life and a tragic end. If Murphy wanted to tell a tale with some emotional (if not actual) truth to it, we figured it was best to leave the subject’s family out of it. Having watched all five episodes of the series, with Ewan McGregor giving it his effete all as the titular fashion designer, we came away somewhat shocked by our reaction: They really should have consulted the family.
Halston the series is fabulous, glittering, fashion-filled, celebrity-packed and gorgeous to look at, but as an examination of the man’s life, it’s about as surface-level as can be, which is odd when you consider how much the series is focused on his every action and decision. Executive produced and partially co-written by Murphy, Halston saw all five of its episodes directed by Daniel Minahan, but as with all Murphy projects, it’s nearly impossible to remove his influence when discussing it. There’s some grand irony to be found there, given that Halston’s own story is that of a creative genius who literally signed away his name, diluting his brand endlessly until there was nothing left of it. But Murphy doesn’t seem to be the self-reflective kind of creator and if there was ever a moment when he may have seen something of himself in the fabulous and flamboyant designer, it was only dealt with on a shallow level. All of the things that Murphy tends to be obsessed with are on display here: celebrity, music, partying, gay life in decades past, drugs and gay sex. After spending nearly five hours of screen time with the man, the viewer is going to walk away from it without any real idea of who he was, except that he was fabulous, self-destructive, and kind of an asshole.
We struggled a lot with this series and this review. First, asking two gay fashion bloggers their opinion on this series is like asking a lifelong comic book fan about Avengers: Endgame. You’ll get an informed opinion, but you have to take it with a grain of salt, since the people giving it are inclined to be huge fans. Second, as much as we enjoyed seeing scenes of Halston revolutionizing American fashion, we can’t tell if the series did a good enough job of explaining how he did so. The one chance they had to really explain this was in the second episode, which is devoted entirely to the historic Battle of Versailles, when a hand-picked group of American designers went head-to-head with the best French fashion and couture houses of the day in a runway showdown that took place in Marie Antoinette’s house. That night is considered legendary (and rightly so), but you wouldn’t know it from the 44 minutes the series deigns to spend on it, most of which is turned over to Halston being rude and histrionic.
In fact, the entire series is devoted to scenes of Halston being terrible. And while an examination of his life and his choices would reveal that he was a difficult man with self-destructive tendencies, the series spends way too much time on them and almost no time explaining them or contextualizing them, and barely enough time showing any of the good qualities that made him so popular and beloved. Here’s Halston being a jerk to Elsa Perretti. Here’s Halston being a jerk to his business advisors. Here’s Halston being a jerk to his lovers. Here’s Halston mistreating employees. Oh, and here he is doing it again. And again. And again. Ad nauseum. The only two things he does more often than snap viciously at everyone around him is lines of coke and saying his name. We wouldn’t try to do a word count on the script, but we’re pretty sure “Halston” is used more than any other. There could have been a reason for this, since the story really is about how the name became iconic and then became degraded by poor decisions, but when people are blurting out “Halston, be reasonable,” “Halston, stop partying,” “Halston, make perfume,” and “Halston, let me fuck you” over and over again, dozens of times an episode, or when McGregor is forced to make his thirtieth “I’m HALSTON and I don’t do (blank)” pronouncement, it starts feeling like a defect in the scripting rather than the underlining of a thematic element.
We wonder if the idea behind making the lead character so unpleasant was because of the person cast to play him. It’s nearly impossible for Ewan McGregor to be un-charming on screen, but boy, do they make him work for it this time. As we noted, Halston the man was shallow, self-destructive and could be vicious in that way that only fashion queens can be, but the series gets so caught up in these sides of him that it leaves the viewer with a very one-sided examination of his life and almost no insight into his character. There are mere minutes of gauzy, washed-out childhood flashback scenes that tell us nothing more than his parents argued, but from that, we’re expected to spin out a lifetime of intensely pursued success, sexual and substance addictions, an inability to connect with other people or fall in love, and a tendency to abuse everyone around him. We spend literal hours watching him be terrible and we’re expected to rely on these ephemeral scenes of backstory to explain it. There’s a scene where he breaks down weeping at the funeral of a character we don’t know and almost certainly should have seen more of; a mere sketch of a whisper of an idea that there were other forces driving the man. In the final episode, when everything’s been lost and he’s at the end of his life, we get a lovely scene where he simply discusses the color blue and all the ways it can be beautiful to him. The series needed way more of that and a lot fewer scenes of him getting fucked in alleyways and stairwells and at Studio 54. As an aside, we find it deeply problematic any time a filmed story about someone who died of AIDS spends an inordinate amount of time depicting his sex life in the most lurid manner possible. Frankly, Murphy should know better than to allow the show to fall back on old AIDS=promiscuity tropes.
As we said, it’s hard for us to gauge whether the average viewer will be enthralled by all of this, since we’re fairly well-versed in all the parts of the story that weren’t depicted or explained. We see Halston creating, but aside from a bunch of people waving cigarettes around while they call him a genius, the show does almost nothing to explain why and how he was considered such. We’re just told that he is in between scenes of him being a terrible person.
Having said all that, McGregor is great – better than the script asks him to be, in fact. We can pay no greater compliment than the one Tom blurted out to Lorenzo during an episode: “I keep forgetting he’s not gay.” McGregor does a fantastic job of nailing the effete pretensions of the man (even if they’re never explained) and when he’s not being an asshole, demonstrating the deep insecurities and anxieties just under the surface. Krysta Rodriguez nearly steals the show as Liza Minnelli (to the point that it veers very close to becoming a Liza biopic), largely by avoiding caricature and mimicry. There’ve been several attempts to depict the young Liza in recent years (most notably in Renee Zellweger’s Judy and in Fosse/Verdon), but Rodriguez is the best of the lot. Her version of “Liza with a Z” somehow manages to evoke the spirit of the young Liza without ever lapsing into a parody of her. Other standouts in the cast include Rebecca Dayan as the drop-dead chic Elsa Perretti, Kelly Bishop has a hilariously blunt and foul-mouthed Eleanor Lambert, and David Pittu as Halston’s long-suffering illustrator and creative consultant. Almost all of the other cast members – including Rory Culkin as Joel Schumacher – wander in and out of the background with almost no introduction or explanation of who they are.
If you’re really into this period; if you love ’70s fashion, Studio 54, and scenes of fabulously chic people partying and getting filthy, there really is a lot here to recommend. But Halston the series, despite examining his actions in minute detail, does very little to help the viewer understand Halston the man.