In the final episode of Netflix’s Halston, the iconic fashion designer, played by Ewan McGregor, asks his assistant to sum up what the critics are saying about his latest collection. She suggests they are disappointed with where his career has gone, given that, “at one point, you reinvented women’s fashion — wrapped a woman in a feeling, in your taste.”
This is an eyebrow-raising comment, not because it’s an inaccurate summation of Halston’s impact in his field, but because Halston the miniseries has done such a poor job of dramatizing what was so special about its title character. It is the first moment of the show that adequately conveys why Halston was such a big deal, and why Ryan Murphy and his collaborators have come together to celebrate his life and work.
Halston follows a familiar rise-and-fall biopic structure. But despite the obvious affection all involved have for their subject (the writers include Murphy, his frequent collaborator Ian Brennan, and playwright Sharr White, among others), the details of the designer’s fall come through much more clearly than those of his rise.
While the creative team has five episodes of approximately an hour each to play with, the miniseries bounces rapidly through Halston’s story, from an unhappy Indiana childhood where he designed hats to cheer up his abused mother, to his first brush with celebrity as the designer of Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat, and his many career ups and downs once he become a full time couturier. His genius is presented as a self-evident thing, even as the the show acknowledges the many times he built on work created by collaborators like future filmmaker Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin) or model-turned-jewelry-designer Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan). The second episode focuses on the 1973 fashion battle at the Palace of Versailles, where Halston and four other top American designers took on the cream of the French crop. It’s framed as a triumph for Halston, but without the rapturous response of the extras playing the audience members, there’s little to clarify why his work was so much better than Oscar de la Renta’s or Anne Klein’s — or even that it was better at all.
Halston’s ruination — a combination of cocaine use, bad choices in men, and worse choices in business partners (never trust a guy who looks like Bill Pullman if he makes you an offer that seems too good to be true) — is mostly confined to the last two episodes. But it feels richer in incident and less checklist-y than what comes before. And if the storytellers don’t succeed in establishing Halston’s import in the first place, then how much does the sad end to his tale matter?
Most of Murphy’s shows under his huge Netflix deal, like The Politician and Ratched, have run into trouble for trying to do too many things, none of them well. Halston in contrast is underbaked rather than overstuffed. Everything feels too flimsy, including Ewan McGregor in the lead role. The real Halston was something of a character created by the boy who was born Roy Halston Frowick, but McGregor never takes us below the surface of that character. It’s as if he worked out the voice and a few gestures and stopped there.
Every now and then, the miniseries finds a burst of inspiration, like introducing the staff of Halston’s first boutique as if they’re the crew from a heist film — “a bunch of queers and freaks and girls who haven’t grown up yet,” as McGregor’s Halston describes them — or Vera Farmiga’s precisely quirky performance as a sense memory expert who helps Halston develop his first signature perfume. But then it’s quickly back to the sloppy, low-energy approach.
When a partner convinces Halston to cut a lucrative deal to sell his clothes at JCPenney, it’s presented as a tragedy that an artist like him would dilute his brand by associating it with such mass-produced junk. But Halston the TV show feels like something you’d find on the clearance rack at Penney’s, rather than the bespoke tribute that such a singular vision deserves.
All five episodes of Halston are available now on Netflix.