Ewan McGregor had not heard of Halston before he agreed to play him, and he may not be alone. This elegant Netflix miniseries is the latest to give a fashion designer the biopic treatment – and in this case, Roy Halston’s glamorous life and spectacular fall gives McGregor plenty of meat to gnaw on. Halston rose to fame on a pillbox hat, which brought him instant notoriety after Jackie O wore it. But his star rose and fell, and rose and fell again, and by the time of his death, in 1990, he had lost the rights to even his own name.
Halston’s family have already called this series “an inaccurate, fictionalised account”, issuing a statement that they were not consulted in the making of it. It is bursting with sex, drugs and monstrous egos, so it would be surprising if they had given it their blessing. The series starts in the late 60s, as American women turn against hats, and Halston is forced to embark on the first of a series of visionary reinventions, ultimately transforming fashion in the US.
It is appropriate for a story set mostly amid the glitz and excess of the Studio 54 celebrity circle that it is immaculately turned out. It looks expensive, and drips elegance. The performances are excellent, from Krysta Rodriguez’s charming, lovable Liza Minnelli to Rebecca Dayan’s adoring Elsa Peretti, and any TV devotees who wish to see Gilmore Girls matriarch Emily Gilmore (the fabulous Kelly Bishop) as a foul-mouthed publicist who tosses off a line like, “You’re going to come to Versailles and blow those snobby French motherfuckers off the stage” will be delighted by her shape-shifting.
But this is McGregor’s show and, as Halston, he cuts a complex figure. He becomes the ringleader of what he calls “a bunch of queers and freaks and girls who haven’t grown up yet”. He is certain of his talent, but infuriated by the business side of fashion, fighting the moneymen (except when they are throwing cash at him). Eventually, his extravagant habit of splashing out on sex, orchids and cocaine hollows out the patience of the backers who keep his business afloat, but demand more of his genius by the day.
But, for all the thrill of the parties and glamour, it rarely goes deeper when it needs to. There is a lot of talk of deals lost, of investments and scaling up and churning out “it items” such as high-end blue jeans. This is the substance of the story, no doubt – it argues that Halston’s name was sullied by just how much stuff he put his name to – but it comes at the cost of characterisation. This is only five episodes long, but it takes time to earn viewers’ sympathy for the main character, and it isn’t until the last two episodes that it really gets under his skin.
Ultimately, this frames the tale as a debate about art v commerce – a curious choice. One of the criticisms some viewers had about the BBC’s adaptation of The Pursuit of Love was that it was not “relatable” because it was about toffs. Whether stories have to be relatable is a matter for debate at the best of times, but I saw The Pursuit of Love as a story about love and freedom, set in a world of toffs. The difference is that Halston is set in a world of fame, but it is about the pressure of what to create and how to be creative when there is too much money and not enough time. It puts emotional distance between the audience and the story. This is written and directed by TV veteran Daniel Minahan, and comes from the stable of Ryan Murphy. Murphy executive produces and co-writes here, and he famously signed a massive deal with Netflix, which has surely given him plenty of opportunity to grapple with the question of whether scaling up productivity means dialling down quality.
That said, by the latter half of this entertaining and often very funny drama (and it is worth the asking price to see McGregor hamming it up when he is asked to cut his flower budget – “Orchids are part of my process. You can’t put a budget on inspiration!”), I found that I had been won over by Halston, excesses, business troubles and all. One scene, in particular, is beautifully done, as two exes quietly chew over the remains of their relationship, one who was in it for money, the other who was in it for love. This is the beating heart of the show, and it is a shame it never quite decides where it stands. It is perhaps a little too enthralled by its own reflection. But then, after the final credits rolled, I realised it had pulled off a Halston-like trick: at the last minute, I had begun to care a great deal about him, after all.
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