For a series where Vera Farmiga creates perfume by wrapping a used jock strap around her face and Ewan McGregor screams “Get it, Sassy!” at his starry-eyed assistant when the office runs low on cocaine, the most surprising aspect of “Halston” is how ordinary it feels. Told in less time than the last “Lord of the Rings,” Ryan Murphy’s latest prestige limited series is light on conflict, high on privilege, and barely reaches into its titular lead’s background to unearth meaningful drama. Instead, it just coasts along on Ewan McGregor’s considerable charms, lush craft work now-standard to the mega-producer’s projects, and a broad biopic template so well-worn it slides on too easily, like an old coat that you had thought was new.
Still, this isn’t “Ratched.” There’s a bit of thought behind “Halston,” and even better, there’s a wistful regret driving its incrementally more interesting second half. With friends like Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) and Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin), parties in Versailles and Studio 54, and more glamorous couture than on any Emmy red carpet, it would have been easy for the limited series to fully embrace its lead’s envious lifestyle and relish in the good times before they abruptly turned bad. But Murphy and fellow writer-producer Ian Brennan imbue even the most mirthful scenes with lingering gloom, honing in on Halston’s loss of identity fairly early on, and that choice — in its own weird, inadequate way — helps make up for the show never giving him much of one to begin with.
“Halston” starts right where you’d expect: childhood. As a young boy in Des Moines, Iowa, little Roy Halston Frowick hears his parents fighting and decides to cheer his mother up with a new hat. His tiny little fingers stitch together a feathery fedora that does the trick, and thus begins the journey from Farmboy Roy to Halston. Before two minutes have passed, the now-grown stylist has already designed a pillbox hat for Jackie Kennedy and entered into an enviable arrangement with Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. He’s well on his way, but then… people stop wearing hats. To hear it from “Halston,” one would expect to gaze out at the Kentucky Derby and see people squinting hopelessly into the sun, or baseball uniforms would end at the players’ pinstriped shoulders — such is the catastrophic fallout for this singular designer.
Except, there’s no real fallout. No one wears hats? Fine. Halston will make dresses. After 10 minutes, he’s got his first line on the runway. In 20, he’s got a team assembled and a storefront on Madison Avenue. By the end of the first episode (which, like all five entries, hovers around a tight 45), he’s wooed the city’s top influencer, and he’s well on his way to becoming the mononymous force in fashion who conquered the Battle of Versailles and brought international respect to American designers.
All of that gets covered in Episode 2, as Halston enjoys the success of his ultrasuede innovation and gets bullied into participating in the 1973 fashion show. Rough life, right? “Halston” could be undone by its careless and carefree disposition, save for McGregor’s loose and lovely turn in the lead role. The Scottish actor has so much fun with Halston’s catty personality and unflinching confidence, he even lets himself cross over into camp. (“Get it, Sassy!” is an absolute gem.) Still, those delightful dalliances never consume the character, as McGregor finds pathos in random, unearned moments of sorrow (Halston’s breakdowns can only really be justified by all the drugs he’s on) and in the end, when he’s given proper room to find peace.
Murphy & Co. eventually introduce a few chaotic elements to slightly complicate Halston’s smooth ride to the top. There’s Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez), an escort who encourages his famous new client to embrace bolder sexual impulses (only a few of which are shared in the series). That would be all well and good, if Victor didn’t also get Halston hooked on cocaine and create constant chaos for the formerly hard-working designer. Victor is both the drug pusher and the drug himself, and Halston’s addiction to both results in actual catastrophe.
Ewan McGregor in “Halston”
Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix
But “Halston” doesn’t really focus on that. The series spends more time watching Rodriguez meticulously recreate Liza Minnelli dance numbers than on Halston’s AIDS diagnosis, treating the latter as more of a wake-up call so he can get back to his roots as an artist. (It also lazily avoids parts of Halston’s life with real significance, like the Halstonettes — diverse runway models who were among the first women of color to walk the runways and be featured in national ads.) “Halston’s” main concern isn’t his early death at the age of 57, but dying with a tarnished legacy. Back in that second episode, when the pressure of competing against Oscar de la Renta and Yves Saint Laurent overwhelms Halston, he makes an impulsive business decision. As the show frames it, Halston feels just like he did as a kid when his parents would fight — “unsafe” — and sells his brand, his name, to Norton Simon, Inc. (represented by Bill Pullman, who walks a fine line between smarmy shark and empathetic helping hand).
Obviously, this cannot end well, and it doesn’t. Without spoiling history, all I’ll say is the chosen 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. (While audiences probably shouldn’t employ Halston’s chosen coping mechanism for this show, they may have been better off burying their faces in a pile of cocaine rather than gaze upon Murphy’s low point.)
So if “Ratched” is Murphy’s J.C. Penney, than there’s reason to hope “Halston” is when he starts sobering up. It won’t earn him the critical praise Halston got for designing Broadway’s “Persephone” costumes (as shown in the series finale titled “Critics”), but his concern over dwindling artistic merits is as obvious as it may be misguided. On the one hand, infusing yourself in someone else’s story can elevate biopics beyond boilerplate history lessons. On the other, one could argue Murphy is blinded by his own preoccupations to the detriment of Halston’s story. In this case, both are true. But based on how little interest is shown in the Man Formerly Known as Roy — beyond all those famous friends and stylish surroundings — at least “Halston” offers something more than diligent recreations of the past. It’s nowhere near as unique or compelling as it should be. But at least Murphy is starting to ask himself the right questions.
“Halston” is streaming now on Netflix.
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