Celebrities, sex, drugs, disco, decadence and lots and lots of glamorous fashion – dahling – are all elements of executive producer Ryan Murphy’s latest biographical drama, the five-part mini series Halston.
The man behind the deliciously bitchy Feud and gripping American Crime Story – which in its second season focused on fashion’s Gianni Versace – here turns his attention to American couturier Roy Frowick Halston, who became the biggest name in design in the 1970s and then watched as his empire was snatched away from him in the 1980s.
Obsessive, unbendable, snobbish, fierce of temper, but loved those who stood by him – and hated by just as many who incurred his wrath – Halston was a difficult genius, and someone who, on paper, is not easy to like.
That makes him something of a tricky subject for five hours of TV entertainment, but in choosing Ewan McGregor for the lead role, Murphy has cleverly cast an actor who not only captures the look, swagger and mannerisms of Halston, but brings as much depth and emotion as possible to a man who kept his life before his arrival in New York in 1957 almost secret, and then created the character “Halston” as a façade for his adoring clientele.
McGregor’s casting as the openly gay designer isn’t without controversy, of course, and in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he said: “…if it had been a story about Halston’s sexuality more, then maybe it’s right that gay actors should play that role. But in this case – and I don’t want to sound like I’m worming out of this, because it is something I did think a lot about – I suppose ultimately I felt like it was just one part of who he was.” Certainly, the series attempts to capture all the elements of what made Roy Halston “Halston”, and McGregor is, like the man he portrays, a tour de force in every scene.
Unfortunately, the series itself isn’t quite worthy of McGregor’s thundering performance. Aside from a few slightly cheesy flashbacks to his childhood, the series follows Halston’s life story in a surprisingly straightforward, almost pedestrian way, beginning as he became the toast of New York as a milliner (he designed the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to JFK’s inauguration in 1961) at the chic Fifth Avenue department store Bergdorf Goodman.
When hats became less popular, he decided to open his own boutique of women’s wear on Madison Avenue in 1968, and his innovative, simple yet sophisticated designs – and use of luxurious fabrics like silk and chiffon that flowed beautifully – became icons of the 1970s, with high society ladies and celebrities like Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Anjelica Huston, Lauren Bacall and Bianca Jagger all photographed wearing his dresses.
Of course, such a rise has to be followed by a fall – especially in a TV drama – and Halston’s was dramatic. Drugs, horrendously bad business decisions and a tempestuous on/off relationship with a Venezuelan-born artist named Victor Hugo (who, as played by Gian Franco Rodriguez, comes across as one of the most unlikeable people on the planet) all led to Halston losing control of the one thing that mattered to him most – his name – in the years leading up to his death in 1990, at the age of 57.
Described by Calvin Klein as ‘the greatest American designer who ever lived’, Halston was a fascinating man and his story has already been told in detail in the 2019 documentary Halston. Halston the series unfortunately doesn’t tell us anything new, but it does bring his decadent world of the 1970s and 1980s entertainingly back to life, with the production team perfectly recreating his impractically modern Manhattan apartment, his Olympic Tower office (complete with blood red carpets and mirrored walls) and, best of all, disco hotspot Studio 54, where the fame hungry Halston danced the night away with friends including Minnelli (a stunning Krysta Rodriguez) and jewellery designer Elsa Perretti (Rebecca Dayan).
Notably, Andy Warhol is barely mentioned despite being a major part of the Studio 54 scene and also Halston and Victor Hugo’s life, but other names are represented in the Halston cast, with Joel Schumacher (who worked on Halston’s early designs before becoming a movie director) neatly played by Rory Culkin, and dancer and choreographer Marta Graham elegantly portrayed by Mary Beth Peil.
Unfortunately, despite a handful of sex scenes and mountains of cocaine on display, the series feels surprisingly tame due to its traditional narrative arc, and only truly comes alive in the fashion scenes (the Battle of Versailles is a fashionista’s dream) and when McGregor’s Halston and Rodruigez’s Liza are together. Their friendship deserves much more screen time than it is given.
Perhaps we have all been spoilt by the revealing relationship exposes of Fosse/Verdon (with Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams) and Murphy’s own Feud (with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as warring actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis).
For while Halston’s fashion designs deserve to be celebrated, and his excesses are a delight (he had an orchid obsession that cost his company hundreds of thousands of dollars), one can’t help wondering whether a mini series about his relationship with Liza Minnelli (who refused to talk ill of her friend in the 2019 documentary and clearly loved him as much – or more – than any of her husbands) would have been a far more moving and emotional TV drama than this fun but forgettable Halston turns out to be.
Read our guide to the fact behind the fiction to learn more about the real Halston.