“Halston” follows the standard rise-and-fall structure of biopics — think “Citizen Kane,” but with more sex, better clothes, and disco. Aside from Ewan McGregor’s no-holds-barred performance, what truly distinguishes these style-over-substance miniseries are its insights into the tension between art and commerce.
“Halston,” which spans three decades in the designer’s turbulent life, must be watched as much because of its sneering, easily provoked leading man as it is because of him. His career arc, on the other hand, invariably finds conflict in his resistance to those pressuring him to make financially motivated decisions rather than staying true to his aesthetic vision.
Producer Ryan Murphy’s latest salacious ode to the glamorous past (following “Feud: Bette and Joan,” “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” and the fictionalized “Hollywood”) begins in 1961, with Halston (his only name) achieving fame after one of his hat designs is worn by First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Hats are no longer fashionable in 1968. Halston is thus prodded to segue into women’s dresses, which will not be the last time he expands his fashion footprint – coaxed by Norton Simon Industries patron David Mahoney (Bill Pullman), usually kicking, screaming, and cursing every step of the way.
“I’m going to change the face of American fashion,” Halston announces early on while dismissing a negative response to one of his shows by snapping, “I’m brilliant. They’re the dummies.”
McGregor effectively inhabits Halston’s imperious, sharply enunciated persona, which he created himself. Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) becomes a muse and lifelong friend for him, one of the few friends or associates he hasn’t alienated by the end of the film.
With rampant cocaine use, a new relationship with a fellow named Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez), and every other diversion available at Studio 54, the 1970s bring extraordinary success and decadence in equal measure. Following that is a look at the toll AIDS took on the gay community in the 1980s, with one particularly poignant moment when a member of Halston’s circle is asked to write down his sexual partners and says he’ll need multiple notepads.
“Halston” lingers too long in the middle chapters — how many temper tantrums can one man throw? — and the five-part production appears to be most enamoured with its flashy trappings. While the costumes and hairstyling should be nominated for Emmys, the writing is far less compelling.
Still, it’s easy to get lost in the meticulous way the limited series recreates this bygone era, with people chain-smoking on planes and Halston exploding every time someone mentions rival designers, particularly Calvin Klein, whose signature commercials torment him on TV.
Murphy has certainly been prolific since joining Netflix, and while “Halston” isn’t a top-tier show, the kinetic force of McGregor’s performance — fast becoming streaming royalty, with plans to reprise his Obi-Wan Kenobi role for Disney+ — makes it watchable, despite (or perhaps because of) its flaws. The project, which is based on a book by Steven Gaines, has been criticized by Halston’s family.
“Reviews don’t matter,” Halston says several times, while quietly living and dying by every word he insists on having read to him.
“Halston” doesn’t deserve the adoration that its namesake did, but combining a marquee star with juicy material is one of those things that never go out of style in terms of attracting attention.