The new Ryan Murphy series is a deserved look at a forgotten icon
Ryan Murphy is specializing in the limited series genre. The prolific TV creator broke the mold with American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (2016), which kickstarted a limited series craze that perhaps has yet to reach its peak. With his exclusive deal with Netflix, Murphy has taken the liberty of exploring the subjects he’s most interested in, such as a utopian view of 1950s Hollywood in Hollywood (2020), a queer perspective on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Ratched (2020-) or the life story of the famed, yet now forgotten, fashion designer Halston in Halston (2021).
Halston is the story of the famed 20th century American fashion designer Halston (Ewan McGregor), who rose to fame designing hats in the 1950s and 60s, but when they went out of style, was forced to adapt to the larger fashion industry as a whole. The result was a career of high highs, mingling with muse Liza Minelli (Krysta Rodriguez), and competing with the likes of Oscar de la Renta (Juan Carlos Diaz) and Calvin Klein (Barry Anderson), to a harsh fall in the 80s with substance abuse and an irrational ego.
Halston’s life can well be considered a classic example of the American dream. Coming from an abusive Indiana household in the 1930s, he quickly made a name of himself, to the point of designing headwear for First Lady Jackie Kennedy. His catapult success leads to the life of excess and dangerous liaisons, something that might have become a cliché for artistic genius stories, if they were not incredibly true.
Murphy and fellow collaborator Ian Brennan have adapted this story from Steven Gaines’ book “Simply Halston.” As with the better biopics, this limited series focuses on a specific portion of Halston’s life, thankfully the more interesting one, in regard to his design life. Many films or projects about artists may be too timid with their subject matter and choose not to dig so much into the “how” and “why” of the artistic creations, instead summarizing and framing art as an inevitability instead of a struggle. I find this to be incredibly simplistic and missing the point of merit and admiration that such artists deserve. Halston is able to dig deeper into the actual creation of the designs, with one particular episode focusing fascinatingly on the creation of a new perfume line. Such a seeming trivial pursuit is framed as a high stakes political game, that truly had me sweating along with our protagonists.
Therein lies the greatest strength in Halston, which is in making viewers care and understand the world of fashion (at least starting from those who are unfamiliar with it). This isn’t done by dumbing down terminology or simplifying the actual design process, in fact it is quite the opposite, of showing the complex and unorthodox ways in which creative minds operate. Certainly, viewers end up appreciating the unique creative prowess of Halston and can understand why investors and collaborators stuck around despite his increasing difficulty and antipathy. Because of this Murphy achieves his objective of making Halston seem like an unsung genius whose story demands to be told.
Yet, as with many of Murphy’s recent projects, Halston suffers from being a bit too detached from the quieter character moments that would build up emotional stakes. By focusing solely on the electric career the real life figure had, the series is granted an aura of intensity that doesn’t let specific moments breathe. As such, there is a lot of heavy lifting left upon the performers themselves. McGregor is stupendous, in a role that might remind some of Michael Douglas as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (2013), in how it runs a fine line of playing an outright (almost offensive) diva yet achieves an edged balance putting forth a layered character. Because Halston doesn’t pause much into crafting the emotional stakes for its protagonist, McGregor is largely left to his own devices to make us feel the strain and erosion that his character is going through. As for the relationships that proved key to Halston’s life, the largely unknown cast is up to the task, yet the real standout is Rodriguez as Minelli, who could have easily played a one-note imitation, and yet achieves a deeper understanding of Minelli’s connection to Halston and their journey together.
Halston is yet another limited series win for Murphy, which highlights the impressive creative career the eponymous character had. The series might be a bit too focused on the professional side of Halston, ignoring the emotional depths of his life, but an incredible performance from McGregor is more than up to the task of pinning up those deficiencies.