‘Halston’ Is a Flat, Empty Provocation: TV Review

Halston, the mononymous designer whose peak fame dovetailed with the celebrity whirl of Studio 54-era New York, rose thanks to his originality and coasted thanks to his willingness to be duplicated. In the new Netflix limited series, also called “Halston,” we see, at first, Ewan McGregor’s gleeful realization at just how much money he can make stamping his name on inferior product; later, he realizes the fees he’s collected came at the price of his artistic soul. “You are not Halston anymore,” an intimate informs him, as the loss of his autonomy sinks in, suddenly and all at once. “They are.”

Producer Ryan Murphy never works alone — “Halston” was created by Sharr White, directed by Daniel Minahan, and produced by, among others, Christine Vachon (also an executive producer on the FX queer-history documentary series “Pride,” out the same day as “Halston” and engagingly big-hearted in ways the limited series never approaches). But his stamp is easily detectable. And it hardly takes a Murphy obsessive to note the timing of a show about an artist whose creative life was ruined by attaching his name to products that didn’t represent the best use of his talents; this arrives some years into a Netflix partnership that so far has borne series that are creatively wobbly at best. Halston the man — at least according to the show bearing his name — was a creative powerhouse who, eventually, let his talent go largely wasted. That “Halston” the show similarly throws away real talent would be less frustrating if the show didn’t seem to be responding to its own shortfalls in real time.

McGregor tries his best. He’s certainly given a lot to play: Halston is extravagant, courtly, an addict in the thrall of many substances, attention most of all. He has a careful eye both for the drape of a garment and for the right thing to say in conversation with a more powerful person. To its credit, the show’s scripts have a sophisticated understanding of, say, the dynamic between Halston and Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez), the star who to Halston is everything; she views him as a wonderful pal. This unbridgeable gap leaves Halston lonely and unfulfilled — he feels a sorrowful ambiguity when she gets married. What’s more, for reasons historical as well as personal to a rigid aesthete, he cannot find real romantic love. Gay life in 1970s New York is depicted as isolating; Halston, alternately a homebody and a riotous, financially profligate extrovert who uses the party as a place to hide, is further isolated, even from himself.

This is not a new lane for Murphy, and once again it seems revolutionary — how rare to make an entire five-episode series dedicated to amplifying such a sour, cynical note — until one realizes there is nowhere for this story to go. Certainly the notion that the modern history of gay life is one as colored by repression and self-loathing as much as by the power of expression is a rich vein throughout Murphy’s work. Just last year, he directed a feature film remake of “The Boys in the Band,” the 1968 play that is the ultimate theatrical howl of isolation and pain. Previously, Ben Platt in “The Politician” and Darren Criss in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” played queer men driven by ambition that looks a lot like misdirected rage.

This show doesn’t go that far, because it doesn’t let itself go anywhere. Having established that Halston is without love for reasons within society and within himself, too, the show just shrugs. It eventually just stops telling its story — cuing up onscreen titles explaining Halston’s death and what happened to the other famous figures we met — without having provided a real ending, or much of a beginning or middle, either.

There’s an uncertainty, a diffidence, to the way “Halston” is told that raises the question, as it unfolds, as to what story producers wanted to tell at all. Flashbacks to Halston’s youth nod at the idea of the difficulty of growing up gay in midcentury middle America, but are so brief as to give the audience little of the real pre-notoriety Roy Halston Frowick to grab onto. And conjuring the magic and possibility of Studio 54 would be a heavy lift, but the show barely tries; crucially, Rodriguez seems under-directed and uncertain in the key role of Minnelli, upsetting the power imbalance between the two and letting key scenes drift away. As Halston’s lover, Gian Franco Rodriguez fares better, but his role in the story — existing in Halston’s life at an icy remove even at the height of their affair, then working to exploit him after they disentangle — seems intended to serve themes of gay treachery and venality that, with “Boys in the Band,” Murphy has already sold us. There, gay men exist in a sort of unredeemed pain and crisis, loveless and loathing. It’s a story of its moment, but it’s a bit shocking to see its ideas resurface again so soon.

“Halston” emanates from a fashionably blasé place, a pose of indifference assumed throughout the attempt to shock. Perhaps the most Murphy scene in “Halston” comes when the designer, asked to provide scent inspiration for a new perfume, blandly hands over his lover’s jockstrap. Poor Vera Farmiga presses it over her face and, as my TV’s closed captions had it, “breathes deeply.” She then tells Halston he is a born perfumer. Presenting the intentionally shocking as grist for premium product — treating raunch as the engine that creates a subversive new sort of class — is a quintessentially Murphy touch. He rewards his character for doing the same, but it feels all too predictable. In moments like these, “Halston,” a show that relies on the allure of familiar names and the thrill of bad behavior without giving any insight about either, plays it safe.

I am not a believer that accuracy is paramount in projects like these; that the Halston Archives have complained that they were not consulted is interesting contextual information but not, in theory, a deal-breaker. In practice, though, the show feels so completely a work of invention intended as dark comment on larger motifs of gay life in the 20th century that I have no idea whether, say, the underwear story would have been in character for the real Halston. Ranging freely over the life of a fascinating and accomplished person, Murphy finds loneliness not just the most interesting facet but the only one.

Murphy has, within the constraints of cable television, made some truly great art — including “Pose,” a show that exists in utterly joyful celebration of queer struggle. By contrast, “Halston” looks for all the world like premium product, but McGregor is the only person here trying. There is a lesson here. Halston wasn’t just creatively ruined by diffusion lines stealing his name. His reputation crumbled, too, and the meaning of wearing a Halston simply went away. Had he been allowed to drill down and really, carefully focus on what he did best, he’d be a legend for reasons other than how easy it is to twist his unfamiliar story into a too-familiar narrative.

“Halston” premiered May 14 on Netflix.

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