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Netflix's Halston does a poor job of dramatizing what was so special about its title character

  • "In the final episode of Netflix’s Halston, the iconic fashion designer, played by Ewan McGregor, asks his assistant to sum up what the critics are saying about his latest collection," says Alan Sepinwall. "She suggests they are disappointed with where his career has gone, given that, 'at one point, you reinvented women’s fashion — wrapped a woman in a feeling, in your taste.' This is an eyebrow-raising comment, not because it’s an inaccurate summation of Halston’s impact in his field, but because Halston the miniseries has done such a poor job of dramatizing what was so special about its title character. It is the first moment of the show that adequately conveys why Halston was such a big deal, and why Ryan Murphy and his collaborators have come together to celebrate his life and work. Halston follows a familiar rise-and-fall biopic structure. But despite the obvious affection all involved have for their subject (the writers include Murphy, his frequent collaborator Ian Brennan, and playwright Sharr White, among others), the details of the designer’s fall come through much more clearly than those of his rise." Sepinwall adds: "Most of Murphy’s shows under his huge Netflix deal, like The Politician and Ratched, have run into trouble for trying to do too many things, none of them well. Halston in contrast is underbaked rather than overstuffed. Everything feels too flimsy, including Ewan McGregor in the lead role. The real Halston was something of a character created by the boy who was born Roy Halston Frowick, but McGregor never takes us below the surface of that character. It’s as if he worked out the voice and a few gestures and stopped there."

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    • Halston is intermittently fascinating but mostly frustrating: "Murphy and Co. had their work cut out for them in distilling decades of the Studio 54 staple’s eventful life into just five episodes," says Judy Berman. "No wonder the result is a mixed bag, squandering rich materials through shoddy construction. The production design is exquisite. Halston recreates historic moments like the 1973 France-vs.-U.S. fashion showdown at Versailles in elaborate detail. But even in quotidian settings, the series uses color in a way that has real emotional resonance. In one early scene, a striking scarlet gown captures the designer’s bold ambitions; episodes later, in Halston’s overstimulated ’80s, the same intense color invades his own wardrobe and office decor. Blood-red carpets are certainly a choice...This is the kind of true story that lends itself to cliché, and to their credit, Murphy’s team declines to deliver some of the most egregious possible scenes: the cocaine-fueled meltdown, the agonizing death from AIDS, Andy Warhol’s nightlife menagerie. But for the most part, the man who helped usher in an Ultrasuede future is constructed from materials we’ve seen many times before: an outsider running from childhood trauma. A drug problem that starts, for a man who works all day and parties all night, as a drug solution. The Faustian bargain that is sacrificing artistic ideals for cash money. If anyone is wrestling their own demons through Halston, we can only conclude that the conflict remains unresolved."
    • Halston 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: "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," says Daniel Fienberg. He adds: "There are bursts in which the writing, but mostly really (Dan) 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."
    • Halston makes it a lot of fun to get to know the legend of Halston, even if the Netflix miniseries skips over some of the most glamorous details of his life: "Bianca Jagger and Anjelica Huston, both dressed by Halston, are only name-dropped, and Andy Warhol, who partied with Halston at Studio 54 and was an inescapable icon of the moment, is merely mentioned in passing," says Sonia Saraiya. "There’s plenty worth examining that gets left on the table—chiefly, the particularly American struggle to reconcile creativity with output, and what happens when a vision and a corporation meet and shake hands. The story is also structured a bit strangely, telling more than showing us that Halston is an excellent designer, and giving us some of the most scrumptious details of his excess as his empire is falling to pieces around him. "Still, what it does recognize—and revels in, almost ridiculously—is how fixated fashion is on the label, the brand, the cult of personality, the name...What makes the whole thing work, start to finish, is McGregor’s huge, bizarre, involved, and inspired turn as Halston, which has the Scot expanding his vowels wide to make them ostensibly Midwestern. The character ends up sounding charmingly like McGregor’s turn as Catcher Block in the delightful satire Down with Love."
    • Halston's overuse of "Halston" is indicative of lazy writing: "Around the middle of the third episode of Halston, thanks to a mixture of boredom and fascination, I started counting every time someone said the name 'Halston,'" says Kathryn VanArendonk. "The new Netflix limited series is about the fashion designer Roy Halston, and sometimes characters say the name to point at the brand: 'This bottle says "Halston!"' or 'Now that’s a Halston.' Often it’s just part of the dialogue, an unrelenting verbal tic. 'Good morning, Halston.' 'You’re an a**hole, Halston!' 'Halston, you’re a genius!' 'You’re out of control, Halston!' From somewhere midway through episode three until the series conclusion at the end of episode five, I counted 114 Halstons, plus three times someone called him 'H' to shake things up. There’s a generous way to read this absurd proliferation. As it’s told here, the Halston story is entirely about the name. Portrayed by Ewan McGregor, Halston is a man so desperate to turn himself into a legend that he trades away his name too freely. He wanted Halston to be a bespoke, rarefied brand, but fear and carelessness turned the name into ubiquitous department-store fodder. Once it was on everything, the Halston name meant nothing. Brand dilution is the story’s chief tragedy — which is really saying something, given that its subject dies of AIDS. From that vantage point, the inescapable drumbeat of Halston, Halston, Halston in the dialogue could be read as a purposeful reenactment of the exact trap that caught Halston himself. The word becomes empty because it is omnipresent. By my count, the last two episodes average one 'Halston' per minute. The less charitable reading is that the writing in Halston is simply lazy."
    • Surprisingly, Halston features none of the Ryan Murphy repertory players, but some of his other hallmarks are very much in place: "Outsiders, power dynamics, queer leads, musical numbers," says Danette Chavez. "Though Halston is undeniably a group effort, built around Ewan McGregor’s oft-canny performance, it’s still destined to be dubbed a 'Ryan Murphy show,' with all the baggage that comes with that term. And yet, the docudrama somehow manages to skimp on that 'Murphy-ness'—it’s nowhere near as campy or heightened or as absurd as it ought to be, even if those qualities usually set Murphy’s shows up to go off the rails. When Bianca Jagger appears astride a horse in the middle of the dance floor, it’s in more of an obligatory “1970s’ greatest hits” compilation manner than a rococo moment. The story’s overindulgences are limited to coke-snorting scenes and utterances of 'Halston,' which number in the hundreds. The sex scenes are often a whirl of clothes, which is maybe fitting. As exquisite as the limited series’ production and costume designs are, there’s more wonder and humor in one of the designer’s old perfume commercials."
    • Halston seems to be responding to its own shortfalls in real time: "McGregor tries his best," says Daniel D'Addario. "He’s certainly given a lot to play: Halston is extravagant, courtly, an addict in the thrall of many substances, attention most of all. He has a careful eye both for the drape of a garment and for the right thing to say in conversation with a more powerful person. To its credit, the show’s scripts have a sophisticated understanding of, say, the dynamic between Halston and Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez), the star who to Halston is everything; she views him as a wonderful pal. This unbridgeable gap leaves Halston lonely and unfulfilled — he feels a sorrowful ambiguity when she gets married. What’s more, for reasons historical as well as personal to a rigid aesthete, he cannot find real romantic love. Gay life in 1970s New York is depicted as isolating; Halston, alternately a homebody and a riotous, financially profligate extrovert who uses the party as a place to hide, is further isolated, even from himself. This is not a new lane for Murphy, and once again it seems revolutionary — how rare to make an entire five-episode series dedicated to amplifying such a sour, cynical note — until one realizes there is nowhere for this story to go. Certainly the notion that the modern history of gay life is one as colored by repression and self-loathing as much as by the power of expression is a rich vein throughout Murphy’s work."
    • For all the thrill of the parties and glamour, Halston rarely goes deeper when it needs to: "There is a lot of talk of deals lost, of investments and scaling up and churning out 'it items' such as high-end blue jeans," says Rebecca Nicholson. "This is the substance of the story, no doubt – it argues that Halston’s name was sullied by just how much stuff he put his name to – but it comes at the cost of characterisation. This is only five episodes long, but it takes time to earn viewers’ sympathy for the main character, and it isn’t until the last two episodes that it really gets under his skin...That said, by the latter half of this entertaining and often very funny drama (and it is worth the asking price to see McGregor hamming it up when he is asked to cut his flower budget – 'Orchids are part of my process. You can’t put a budget on inspiration!'), I found that I had been won over by Halston, excesses, business troubles and all."
    • Ryan Murphy's focus seems to say more about who’s telling Halston’s story than Halston himself: "Ryan Murphy rose to prominence working with Fox, whether it was through broadcast hits like Glee or FX award-winners like Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story. Even after starting another widely respected anthology series in American Crime Story, he signed a deal with Netflix to the tune of $300 million — and hasn’t made anything with artistic merit since. The Politician, Hollywood, and the aforementioned nadir in Ratched have all been disappointments, so much so that three years after signing with the streamer, the question on everyone’s mind is, 'What happened to Ryan Murphy?' (This piece originally posed that very question in its headline.) Halston indicates he’s asking himself the same thing. Questions of legacy haunt the series: It’s the main reason Halston builds his empire in the first place, and it’s his greatest dread once he realizes what greed hath wrought. The look of stemmed revulsion that crosses Halston’s face when he’s forced into a $1 billion deal with J.C. Penney says it all. He never expected to sink so low....So if Ratched is Murphy’s J.C. Penney, than there’s reason to hope Halston is when he starts sobering up."
    • What's fact and what's fiction in Halston
    • See how much the Halston stars look like their real-life counterparts
    • Ewan McGregor's performance is shockingly accurate: Yes, Halston talked like that
    • Costume designer Jeriana San Juan on finding the freedom of the late designer's looks
    • Ewan McGregor learned to sew, drape and pin to play Halston: “I sent a sewing machine to his hotel room so that he could practice in his free time — he requested it, I didn’t force it on him! — but I just loved how interested he really was in being able to do it correctly,” says costume designer Jeriana San Juan, who became McGregor's tutor, adding: “Halfway through (the shutdown), he sent me an image of some amazing trousers he had made. I was almost in tears. My student had graduated on his own.”
    • Ewan McGregor became so possessed with Halston that sometimes he thought he was Halston: "There were just little moments,” he says, “where I felt like, ‘Oh, that was him.’ There was, like, a little curse, an eye roll or something where I felt that was it.”
    • McGregor wanted to play Halston after he was presented photographs of the late designer: “I was just really taken with the presentation," says McGregor. "He (director Dan Minahan) showed me all these photographs of Halston and the people in his circle — Liza Minnelli, (jewelry designer) Elsa Peretti, (his lover) Victor Hugo. And I could tell instantly from the photographs: I wanted to play him. Just something about the way he holds himself, something in his eyes.”

    TOPICS: Halston (2021 series), Netflix, Ewan McGregor, Halston, Jeriana San Juan, Ryan Murphy, Sharr White




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