Netflix and Ryan Murphy Productions continue their prosperous relationship with their newest venture, a miniseries named Halston. The five-episode miniseries gives the audience ample time to get used to Halston as a brand, and occasionally as a person. The miniseries follows the life of Roy “Halston” Frowick, the founder and head designer of the fashion house Halston that gained popularity in late 1960s and through the 1970s and 80s. The series follows Halston, played by Ewan McGregor, from the birth of his fashion brand, to the end of his life. The miniseries is based on the book “Simply Halston” by Stephen Gaines.
The show has several important signatures of a Ryan Murphy Productions piece. We follow a queer main character through an iconic time period in history. There’s an all-star cast to provide the realism to the occasionally campy but not completely out of this world dialogue. The music selection is spectacular. Going back and forth between the mod summer of love 60’s music, to coked out disco, to synthy dreamy 80’s moments. However, that main theme felt like it was missing consistent exploration throughout the series. The show attempts to grapple with the idea of Halston the person versus Halston the brand throughout. We get glimpses into the person when he’s at his most vulnerable searching for protection, or for love after something very difficult. These only happen infrequently and early in the show. It makes the theme feel weak instead of a theme we need to pay attention to when they bring it back around for episode five. The writers don’t fully flesh out the theme; like they don't have the time to answer the question they pose, only present it to the audience. Which can’t work if your source material doesn’t continue on to answer the question. Halston’s life can’t continue past its end. So it’s up to the show to have an opinion on the theme it gives us. Halston doesn’t do that.
One of the main reasons to turn on the show is Ewan McGregor’s performance as Halston. McGregor tackles the character’s exciting and darker moments with choices the expansion of emotion that isn’t reigned in. Ever. Whether it’s locking himself in a car during a huge fashion show, walking out of the middle of a perfume pitch meeting where the only word he’s said the whole time is ‘no’, to throwing a phone at a coworker. McGregor gives Halston a distinct voice and body that moves through space like an imposing, graceful force, as well as something that breathes rarified air. We see the occasional blow ups, like hitting someone who is blackmailing him, but what we see is a real person underneath a mask, a cover, a label. It’s difficult to make both the man, Halston, and the image Halston curated for his fashion house at the same time. McGregor is able to find a balance that propels through the rest of the show. It’s difficult to take your eyes off him. Through the whole show, we see Halston grow and change for each episode. McGregor’s acting is a high point of this because it’s almost as if you are watching a different type of Halston episode to episode to the point where it feels almost inconsistent.
That’s not McGregor’s fault. That’s a behind the scenes problem. The show didn’t do a great job of weaving in the theme of identity vs brand consistently through all five episodes. Halston the man is someone with uncompromising ambition. Someone desperate to prove his worth by notoriety and allure from the elite. The brand appears easy, languid and smooth. It’s not that he doesn’t accomplish his goals of being prestigious and glamorous, it’s that he shuts off his vulnerabilities to be perceived the same way as the fashion brand he created. The problem is when these two things aren’t seen in sync or against each other. It feels like something the audience is supposed to notice for one scene then gets lost in some sort of spectacular flash in another.
When the audience sees Halston becoming a characterized version of himself with the slicked back hair, and the bronzer and the turtleneck in the bathroom of episode one, the audience can understand this is Halston the brand overcoming Halston the man. However, we get lost when we see his mask slip for the sake of having to perform under pressure in episode two. It gets lost again, when the mask is on, then off while he’s partying at Studio 54 in episode three, and on and on we go. While McGregor works to set up these moments of vulnerability for the audience, the writers undermine him by making his personal moments rather tepid and forgettable for the sake of some flash. It’s at best confusing and at worst inconsistent. So if you’re watching Halston for McGregor’s performance, keep this in mind.
Another performance worth noting is Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minelli. Krysta Rodriguez can perform and sing the role beautifully; which is a bare minimum. Minelli is a noted actress, singer and dancer who was known for a long time simply as the daughter of Judy Garland. However she grew into her own performer and became a winner of the acting triple crown (winning an Emmy, Tony and Academy Award) by 1973.
Krysta Rodriguez brings in the old confidante voice of reason who’s seen it all in show business, to a young and energetic character. Liza’s speeches and moments of counsel to Halston were some of my favorite scenes, and it hits harder if you know a little about Minelli’s life before seeing the show.
Halston is a show that occasionally sacrifices moments for these real people to be seen as real for pomp and glamour. Instead of seeing how Halston is having a problem with dealing with the excesses of his success, we get a montage of him going to Studio 54 almost every evening.
With Ryan Murphy productions, it’s known you’re going to get two things: usually queer history that’s not exactly true and beautiful visuals. I’m not naive enough to think that people are watching a show about a famous fashion designer because they wanted something gritty and realistic. I watched it partially because of the visuals. Sometimes, though, it feels like these characters are sacrificed to become shelled archetypes instead of actual people who led actual lives. Halston goes from a passionate and volatile artist to a raging bully who yells at his secretary for more cocaine in the fitting room. Victor Hugo goes from only wanting love and respect from Halston to the spurned lover looking for a paycheck. Elsa and Joe go from trusted collaborators to the friends pushed away after success. While archetypes are useful, and I’m not saying these incidents didn’t happen nor that they weren’t well written or compelling to watch, I’m curious about why we couldn’t have just a little more reality in a biographical show.
These sorts of stories are a usual for Ryan Murphy Productions. Ryan Murphy Productions takes on something like Halston, or something like Pose, which similarly, uses a niche period of queer history, spectacle, and biting witty dialogue to showcase its main storyline, or “The Normal Heart”, still a distinct period of queer history, with it’s own sort of realistic and gritty aesthetic instead of spectacle, but with the same sort of wit and bite even if it’s not written by Ryan Murphy, then it goes on Netflix or HBO. Where there are the people like me who watch it because they want to see what Ryan Murphy and his compatriots (for Halston, Sharr White and Daniel Minihan) are going to do with this moment of queer history. The other people who watch it, because Netflix, HBO and Ryan Murphy Productions all want to make money as well as tell compelling stories, are people who have no idea about Halston. Or people who clicked simply because they saw Ewan McGregor was in it. That’s its appeal. It’s for both the people who know about Halston, and those who may need education on the subject. It made me curious if the show couldn’t balance educating those who didn’t know context versus those who knew the subject material.
It also brings up an important question: is it a creator’s job to fully educate the audience who know next to nothing about the subject when telling stories of real people and history? I’m not sure I have the answer. Maybe the answer is no. Maybe the answer is to educate teasingly, as if you’re only supposed to learn the broad strokes of a subject from fiction, but be compelled and riveted so much that you want to do research of your own. However, as I watched the show try to balance a dramatic theme, watched the actors dazzle me with the way they discussed inspiration, and artistic process, and tried to care about both Halston’s identity as Halston and as “Halston,” I wasn’t compelled to do much of anything other than go, “Oh, that was nice”. Maybe for this Murphy production that’s enough.
All in all, Halston is a beautifully packaged show with beautiful acting performances and moments of visual splendor. It’s a terrific weekend binging fare if you haven’t seen it yet. When that happens to a show, not even the tour de force acting performance for its titular character, fun writing or spectacular glimpse into the glamour of New York’s Upper East side through the 1970’s and 80’s can keep a person interested enough for the story to truly stick. Though if one is looking for more information on anything gleaned from the story, like the AIDS epidemic, or Studio 54, or Martha Graham, I’d try to find different media resources.
About the Author
Olivia is a writer based in North Carolina. She graduated from The New School College of Performing Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Dramatic Arts and enjoys viewing and analyzing media from plays (actual or virtual) to film and television. Her favorite writers tend to be playwrights like Lanford Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry and Tony Kushner, but her favorite books include The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. When she isn’t watching or reading new work, she listens to Bruce Springsteen, knits, and watches book reviews and costuming/sewing videos on YouTube.