Netflix UK TV review: Halston
Helen Archer | On 18, May 2021
As Ryan Murphy has become increasingly prolific, so too has he become increasingly hit-and-miss. Some see these lapses in quality as a direct consequence of his $300 million deal with Netflix, resulting in programmes often lacking in heart, prime examples of style over substance. Halston – the American designer whose ubiquity was ultimately his downfall – is someone you feel could relate to Murphy’s predicament. But, happily, this five-part series marks something of a return to form for the showrunner.
Although directed by Daniel Minahan, Halston is classic Murphy, who served as exec producer and co-writer on the project. It exhibits many of his preferred themes, and his particular luxe, camp aesthetic – a mix between Wall Street and Hairspray – which complements his delves into the recent past. Based on the book Simply Halston by Steven Gaines, the programme chronicles the rise and fall of the designer, from his beginnings as creator of Jackie Kennedy’s famous pillbox hat to building a brand based on gloriously draped dresses and jumpsuits and his ultimate shilling for everything from carpets to luggage. It’s wall-to-wall with some of the design world’s movers and shakers of the late 20th century and, although the Halston Archives has disavowed the series, it acts both as an arch chronicle of the times and a wildly entertaining ride.
The series features a terrific ensemble cast, including Krysta Rodriguez as a sunny yet solidly loyal Liza Minelli, Rebecca Dayan as Halston muse and Tiffany jewellery designer Elsa Peretti, David Pittu as illustrator Joe Eula, and Rory Culkin as a young Joel Schumacher. But it’s Ewan McGregor’s show to lose, and as Halston he delivers one of his most captivating performances, nailing the chutzpah, the charisma, the obnoxiousness, the arrogance and the sometimes surprising fragility of the designer, while looking like he’s relishing every moment.
The series begins as Halston finds he has to parlay his talents elsewhere as the fashion for hats falls out of favour – just as Liza doesn’t want to be known just as Judy Garland’s daughter, Halston doesn’t want to be known as Jackie Kennedy’s hat-maker. Pivoting to dress design, he assembles his core group, and they set about creating an atelier and trying to find investors. The whole endeavour has a “Let’s get a gang together and put on a show vibe, and it’s a lot of fun. Halston’s showmanship and vision are key in these first couple of episodes, as he strolls around New York finding inspiration on the city streets, observing not only how women dress, but the statues, the architecture, the feel of the city. With his star on the rise, though, he’s vulnerable to all sorts of pressures. As Bill Pullman’s David Mahoney – the CEO of Norton Simon who hopes to buy Halston’s brand – joins forces with an indomitable, straight-talking publicist, played with verve by Kelly Bishop, Halston’s caught in a vice-like grip, unable to stop his star ascending to the kind of heights that can only result in vertigo. The battle between business and art, capitalism and creativity, is played out on his very being.
Halston’s petulance is never far from the surface, but he’s as honest as he is self-aggrandising. Looking to Mahoney to keep him safe and secure, it’s clear he’s hoping for a father figure rather than a business partnership. There are scant flashbacks to his childhood, which tell us next to nothing, but allude to the fact that he is a scared little boy at heart. Vera Farmiga’s no-nonsense yet sensitive perfumier briefly knocks through his potent mixture of self-belief and vulnerability, but as Studio 54 opens, his drug dependence and sheer decadence get the upper hand, and he reverts increasingly to toddler-like tantrums and egotism. Meanwhile, his long-term lover Victor Hugo (a sensational performance by Gian Franco Rodriguez) challenges him to open up emotionally, but is repeatedly pushed away.
The final arc is a predictable one – none of us are strangers to the tortured genius alienating everyone around him, while debasing his name and his artistry. Professional jealousies abound, ruining long-standing relationships, and Halston finds himself wandering around his huge, minimalist penthouse alone, like some 1980s version of Howard Hawks or Charles Foster Kane, surveying the lights of neighbouring skyscrapers from his Olympic Tower studio, far above the streets where he once found his inspiration.
It’s hard not to compare the Halston brand to that of Murphy’s – both were gay men raised in Indiana, and both reached the height of their bankability just as the quality of their work started dropping off. Halston over-extended himself, just as Murphy seems to have done. Ultimately, though, Halston was able to reclaim, if not his name, then the talent and vision synonymous with it. Here’s hoping Ryan Murphy can do similar.
Halston is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.