Halston suffers for having had a compelling trailer.
The trailer cheated, using a Depeche Mode song released the year Halston died rather than a disco tune evocative of his dominant era, but it was effective, mixing high drama with high camp and suggesting the kernel of a promising biopic. Would Ryan Murphy finally transcend his lust for getting the look right and hit rather than miss in the insight department?
Halston, a new five-episode series on Netflix, looks exquisite and contains a convincing, if flat, Being There-ish performance by Ewan McGregor as the boy from Indiana who restyled himself as a snob who was backed into marketing his elitism with the gusto of McDonald's slinging burgers. There is a lot to investigate, considering Halston was absorbed with the idea of changing who he was while retaining his birth name, and wound up losing that name.
But the work is strictly off-the-rack. Halston is a pretty, surface peek at a guy who — as Frédéric Tcheng's 2019 doc of the same name suggested — had a lot going on under the surface, enough to make you want to know much more than this series shares.
Though directed by Daniel Minahan, Halston has Murphy's unmistakable stamp all over it, to its detriment. It becomes far too fascinated with recreating Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) performances (and an overdose) and sexing up the designer's story with explicit romps between McGregor and Sullivan Jones as early boyfriend and boutique manager Ed Austin and Gian Franco Rodriguez as peak-years boyfriend Victor Hugo and far too disinterested in giving us any real understanding of the changes the man enacted in himself. Why did the accent? Halston doesn't know. Drug abuse occurs only after Hugo muscles him into trying coke one time. He sells his name — the centerpiece of the Halston tragedy — in a moment of self-doubt. It all feels simplified, and isn't nearly as entertaining as it could be.
Probably the most memorable moment in the entire thing is when Vera Farmiga, playing a scent specialist, takes a deep, sensual whiff from Hugo's used jockstrap, brought to her by Halston as part of “doing the work” on developing what would become his outrageously successful perfume. It snaps into a maniacally Murphy re-creation of Halston's campy commercials.
AIDS is an important part of the Halston story, and is far too big a subject to be dealt with as a subplot in an episode, but showing Halston actually casually coming across the infamous New York Times article about 41 homosexuals with cancer is about as ham-fisted a choice as one could make. Better is a short scene in which Hugo is told he has AIDS, although the social worker who informs him is depicted as having the patience, warmth and understanding of someone working in more enlightened times.
The real perks of Halston are few and far between, but Rebecca Dayan as Elsa Peretti is one. Without skimping on the gay story, the series lavishes attention on Peretti, and Dayan makes the most of it. It is one of the only aspects of Halston's story that is rendered with a spark, that the filmmakers attempt to explore beyond the obvious. By contrast, his connection with Liza Minnelli is explained via a ridiculous exchange early on, in which Liza says she is running from being Judy Garland's daughter and divines that he is running from being Jackie O's hatmaker; it is a clunky, literal scene, whereas Peretti's relationship with Halston is far more dynamically relayed.
Bill Pullman as David Mahoney, the businessman who led Halston to great heights — and sold him out — is also Emmy-worthy, but most of the supporting players barely get a chance to show what they can do. More attention should have been paid to Carl Epstein, the all-businessman who wound up being Halston's last boss — the juxtaposition of willful artiste and human “egg-salad sandwich” (as Halston calls him in the series) could have been scintillating, and would have given Jason Kravits a meaty role.
Rodriguez in particular has to deal with a character who is broadly sketched as a blackmailing backstabber who — this is merely implied by the way the story is told — “gave” him AIDS.
You know what I'm looking forward to? I'm looking forward to the time when some cheeky filmmaker gives us Ryan Murphy — who is, after all, very Roy Halston — filled with re-creations, made-up nonsense and oh-so-much style. I'm sure Halston's family would consider producing.
“Reviews don't matter,” Murphy might snipe, as Halston did, but when the party is over, Halston, as a series, is strictly limited, darling.