The life story of legendary American fashion designer Halston (Ewan McGregor), who became famous when he created Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat for JFK’s inauguration in 1961. Revolutionising women’s high-end clothing, he enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle until his death, age 57, of Aids-related illness in 1990.
Streaming on: Netflix
Episodes viewed: 5 of 5
Ryan Murphy’s latest series for Netflix, after The Politician, Hollywood and Ratched, is essentially a five-hour biopic of the kind of maverick genius Murphy’s been drawn to throughout his career as a TV showrunner. Yet apart from the occasional brief, impressionistic flashback to his traumatic childhood, this dramatisation of the life of Roy Halston Frowick, better known by his fashion-brand mononame Halston, is unfashionably straightforward. Sticking to a chronological look at key episodes in Halston’s life gives the series an old-fashioned air, as does the familiar trajectory of a creative talent brought down by addiction and excess, but the approach does finally pay off. To get to that point, though, we have to endure hours of Ewan McGregor’s Halston being a total dick-head.
McGregor, also an exec producer, impersonates Halston’s contrived upper-class American accent quite effectively and just about convinces as a man whose everyday life is a performance. Rarely seen without a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, elbow extravagantly cocked, this Halston is one-dimensionally snobbish and smarmy, even when he’s supposed to be having a super fun time with famous friends like Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez). As his narcissism gets out of control, work life at his atelier descends into a series of temper tantrums in which McGregor’s Halston comes across as whiny when we’re presumably supposed to think he’s being scarily charismatic. “That’s what it means to be an artist,” he declares, unconvincingly.
The decline into debauchery feels like a story we’ve seen many times before.
When Halston becomes a household name, the subsequent decline into debauchery feels like a story we’ve seen many times before. The fact that it’s true doesn’t really excuse the judge-y way Halston’s addictions to sex and drugs are depicted, as we watch him consuming Scarface levels of cocaine and enjoying mini-orgies in New York nightclub Studio 54. When the drama arrives at the 1980s, with Visage and Tears For Fears tunes pulsating on the soundtrack, the episodes of excess are at least occasionally entertaining. The fact that Halston gets his baked potato and seafood lunches flown over to his Montauk beach house from a restaurant in Manhattan 108 miles away is an amusing detail, and when the creative mastermind is pitted against the money men, it says a lot that we take the side of commerce over creativity.
Even in the episodes set at the height of his fame, the drama rarely soars or surprises, apart from one indelible moment when Halston is asked by his fragrance advisor Adele (Vera Farmiga) to provide some items from his life to inspire the creation of his signature scent and he brings in… his boyfriend’s sweaty jock-strap. The biggest surprise of the whole series, though, is that, despite everything, one last burst of creativity from Halston in the series finale proves to be deeply moving. A final montage provides a poetically satisfying end which almost makes amends for the prosaic telling of this remarkable life story.
Despite telling the kind of tormented-creative-genius story we’ve seen in many a Hollywood biopic, complete with crass moralising about the dangers of an indulgent lifestyle, this latest Ryan Murphy concoction eventually manages to get under the skin.