Halston: The Boys In The Bland

My best friend suggested that it's possible Ryan Murphy was put here to destroy all our icons, but I'll be slightly more charitable. Halston means well - unlike, say, Glee - but the combination of Murphy's expansive deal with Netflix and his usual hangups and tics when it comes to storytelling lay waste to what clearly could have been a dazzling, messy epic of gay life in the seventies.

Halston is, of course, one of fashion's great stories of success and self destruction, played out against the backdrop of Studio 54, the cocaine years, and too much too soon careers. Originally a hat designer much loved by the ladies who lunch crowd, Halston had to reinvent himself as hats fell out of favor in the mid sixties, and he launched a high end fashion line noted for his easy, breezy use of flowing fabric and a keen Halstoneye for distilling the key elements of American style. I remember the first time I saw Halstons at the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum in New York - what amazed was not the sense of their time, the height of seventies style, but the way most of them could have been taken out of a closet and worn today without a second thought.

It's very obvious that part of what's missing in Halston is just that sense of the clothes. The show keeps sort of showing them, as if somewhere, in a room just off camera, there's a collection of stunning clothes we've only been allowed to glance at. It's frustrating, and eventually exasperating - especially in key moments like the famous "Versailles Show" of 1973 - that what was boldly beautiful about Halston's work is mostly merely sketched at.

Yet the other frustrating element is that if this was then meant to be a juicy, dishy tell all of famous messes and their excessive ways, the series only sketches at that, as well. Halstoin swans around a lonely, oddly depopulated Manhattan that lacks grit or glamour or a sense of the city's energy, and that's just deadly for the story of someone who clawed his way to the top of New York's ultimate importance. Wearing Halston, knowing Halston, being Halston... it's hard to understate how off the wall his celebrity as a fashion icon was... and yet, somehow, that's what Murphy manages to pull off.

And all of that makes what works here all the more puzzling. Halston's genuine closeness to Liza Minnelli is beautifully portrayed, as is Liza's intelligence and sense of herself. Halston's ability to see women, and to get what they're looking for in clothes and style is instinctive and that clearly comes across. But too often the film both madly name drops and yet not enough. Where's Diana Vreeland? Grace MIrabella? Why is Eleanor Lambert coyly half revealed when every fashion person on earth will love the character on display here? why two mentions of Jackie O and then... nothing?

Meanwhile, what could and should be a frank assessment of drugs and louche behavior is just... wasted. Too often Halston's descent into addiction has the feel of the kind of music biopic lampooned in the Dewey Cox Story: some man of color Halston is having sex with pulls out poppers or coke... and off he goes. Clearly Halston's tastes were well established, but it's hardly surprising that more white gay men trying to make sense of Halston's dark skinned boyfriends comes off as pretty much as problematic as it could possibly be.

None of which is to fault the performers Krysta Rodriguez' Liza is indeed a delight, Rebecca Dayan's Elsa Peretti floats around the edges of scenes like any good Italian heiress of the seventies would. Halston's various louche bedmates are fine. And Ewan McGregor? It's not the first time he's played a toppy (not necessarily bossy) bottom - that would be Todd Haynes' lovely Velvet Underground, where he finishes the film getting railed by Christian Bale on a London rooftop - but I sure hope the intimacy coach made sure he had a safe word here in Halston. I've rarely worried so much for a star in sex scene after sex scene - getting pounded never looked so, well, pounding, and God knows, Murphy should know enough about that. To his credit McGregor goes balls to the wall (no, literally) on playing Halston at every level, but it's hard when a key role like this is so emotionally cut off from himself that it becomes hard to know what's going on in side his head at all. A better film wouldn't leave us wondering, if only by distracting with endless falderal, a party that seems to neither start nor end. Because that's what the seventies were, and the film just fails at it, utterly.

I suspect Murphy tried to impose all the lessons learned from remaking The Boys in the Band - itself a reminder that, armed with solid material, this Netflix deal gives Murphy room to fly - and on the one hand he's right: Halston, too, is a stunted boy from a deeply repressed background covering it up with style, wit and a lot of drugs and sex in pre and post Stonewall realities.  The trouble is, you can't tell Halston's story and mistake the former for the latter... that is, the story needs a lot of style and drugs and sex... and probably less psychologizing about What Made Him That Way. Halston - which could yes, use a lot less of people walking into rooms saying "Halston" - takes the racy, sexy undercurrent that both defined the seventies and the stylist who dressed it, and trades it for a morality tragedy of lonely people looking to connect. As Halston - or Steve Rubell or Liza or any number of seventies icons would say - "how boring." And, well, they had a point.

Then, too, a crowded messy orgy of a superstar existence is probably the absolutely wrong thing to expect to tell well when filming into the teeth of the pandemic. One wonders why launch a project like Halston right now, really, at all. And still, the bigger struggle of a Halston is when and how someone will step in and give Murphy the kind of feedback he needs to balance his ambitions in ways that deal more constructively with his limitations as a storyteller and producer. Big, beautiful, yet emotionally inert and off the mark, almost anyone can see what Halston lacks... except apparently, the person making it.


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