Ryan Murphy’s new five-episode Netflix series Halston stars Ewan McGregor as the pioneering designer who built a spectacular fashion empire in the 1970s and ’80s, then lost it all in an equally spectacular manner. If you watch it, you’ll bless McGregor and curse Ryan Murphy, the producer and cowriter of several episodes.
Murphy’s credits as TV series creator/writer/director/producer include Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Feud: Bette and Joan, Pose, Ratched, and Hollywood, and as film director, Running with Scissors, Eat Pray Love, The Normal Heart, and The Prom. His series generally tend to have intriguing premises, high production values, very bright, very glossy looks, and at least one excellent lead performance. And a few are genuinely engaging — I was completely hooked by Feud, about the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, whereas his more recent series Hollywood is among the most appalling things I’ve ever tried to sit through.
Murphy’s got a tendency to torpedo his own shows by going for eye candy and brain death, flattening out any intriguing spikiness by staying relentlessly in the shallow end of the pool. He favors a simplistic identity politics progressivism that is weirdly inconsistent. Halston is Exhibit A in this regard. Murphy got into hot water for casting heterosexual actor McGregor to play a famous gay man, but there’s a bizarre oversight within the script that’s harder to understand. It leaves out entirely an important aspect of Halston’s career: he was innovative in hiring many black models, a number of whom he discovered himself as he moved around New York City, at a time when only a few women of color were regularly employed in the American fashion industry.
At the famous “Battle of Versailles” in Paris in 1973, a legendary fashion world event at which five top American designers were pitted against five top French designers, Halston triumphed not only through refreshing spontaneity in presentation and gorgeous, free-flowing clothes, but also by including a dozen black models in his show. The French had one black model amongst all five designers. Murphy makes the “Battle of Versailles” the crucial event that guarantees Halston’s status as a premiere designer, but manages to ignore some of the most dramatic aspects of the event.
When it comes to racial representation, Murphy’s series tends to emphasize, instead, Halston’s sexual preference for men of color, particularly black men. And in the Studio 54 scenes, Murphy seems to be suggesting that the orgies that went on regularly in the basement rooms and balconies at the club were gay-only, which was by no means the case. It was a pansexual smorgasbord at Studio 54.
If you watch the 2019 documentary Halston, directed by Frédéric Tcheng, you’ll see why Murphy was interested in the material in the first place. Halston, born Roy Halston Frowick and raised in a troubled rural Indiana household during the Depression, recreated himself as Halston, and buried his painful past so deep, many of his closest friends knew nothing of his background.
He first came to prominence as a milliner working for Bergdorf Goodman, designing the famous pillbox hat for Jackie Kennedy. Then he founded his own couture atelier and created hit after hit. The late 1960s caftan craze was started by Halston. The ultra-successful ultra-suede shirtdress was also his invention. Halston reconceived the young, Cabaret-era Liza Minnelli’s look, emphasizing her lithe dancer’s body with clothes that allowed her to move freely. “The clothes danced with you,” she said, regarding her lifetime love of Halston’s designs.
Part of Halston’s career downfall involved his enormous appetite for cocaine and paid sex, but the main problem was selling his company and the name “Halston” to a rapacious corporate entity which ultimately drove him to ruin, trying to churn out fresh designs for every type of product from perfume to luggage.
Halston was so completely self-created that he even changed the pronunciation of the one name he kept, which became “Hall-ston” rather than HAL-ston with a broad flat A. The documentary indicates that his mother was constantly correcting the pronunciation, telling people exactly what Halston didn’t want to emphasize: “It’s a family name.”
Murphy’s version of the man is so determined to leave his dreary past behind him, he apparently drops his whole family and never sees them again till he attends his mother’s funeral, another odd, pointlessly fictionalized element. Halston’s family has already registered their disapproval of the series, calling it “an inaccurate, fictionalized account.”
Halston was not the irredeemable elitist bastard the series shows us. Oh, he could be a bastard all right, but he also had many contradictory tendencies. It was his idea to design clothes for the JC Penney department stores, but the series insists his corporate overlords forced it upon him so they could sell more product to the masses. The documentary informs us that Halston actually had to override the objections of almost everyone in his endeavor to give regular people access to excellent fashion design. He paid dearly for his democratic impulse later when the fashion world scorned the Halston brand as worthless — if anyone could buy it, its snob value disappeared. Bergdorf Goodman ostentatiously stopped carrying all Halston designs, and it was among the final nails in the coffin of his once-illustrious career.
But Murphy and his team refuse to complicate the art vs. commerce, elitist vs. populist categories. Their notions of the workings of traumatized psychology are also sadly limited. The Psychology 101 scenario we get to explain all of Halston’s adult excesses is a repeated scene supposedly from his childhood, in which Halston as a small boy with a perpetually quivering lip stares out at us in the foreground while in the background his brutal father chases down his mother to beat the hell out of her. But because the look of the Indiana childhood never varies — it’s always Norman Rockwell in its bright colors and nostalgic sunniness — it conveys far less trauma than one black-and-white photo of Halston and his brother as Depression-era boys, which is featured in the documentary but not the series. The documentary also underscores how the relentless homophobia Halston endured as a young man served as a goad to his ambition and motivated his gathering around him a unique creative team of what he calls “freaks.”
But worse, the snobbery attributed to Halston actually seems to afflict Murphy’s own worldview. There’s a really shocking episode involving the Studio 54 phenomenon reaching its peak of decadence just before it gets shut down in 1980, when the owners, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, are busted for tax evasion and the possession of massive amounts of drugs.
In it, we see Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) suddenly overdose in the midst of disco dancing and float to the floor in a graceful dying-swan manner while, up in the air vents, the death of a mere prole occurs. She’s the desperate young woman in a cheap rabbit fur coat who’s been standing behind the rope line, trying in vain to get into the club but repeatedly turned away for being judged unbeautiful, unfamous, and badly dressed.
The cross-cutting between the lovely, romanticized, almost-dying of Minnelli and the ugly, panicky, actual-dying of a “nobody” seems to go beyond merely trying to illustrate the way corrupt values separate people into celebrities and “commoners,” falsely conferring glamor on certain tragedies while dismissing others with scornful indifference. The cinematography, editing, and casting are unironically working to insist on the truth of that worldview — that celebrities not only look better than us in everyday life, they are better, transcending even the physically messy death throes that afflict the rest of us. There’s no other reason to show Minnelli looking like a swooning angel instead of panting, sweaty, and strung out, like someone actually OD-ing.
And it’s worth noting that there actually was a body found in the Studio 54 air vent after it closed, but it was a man in a tuxedo trying to get in. Murphy, in his usual way of dividing the world into rigidly opposed categories, seems to want to insist on the supposedly abject qualities of the person who died in contrast to Minnelli’s perfection.
Of course, biographical accuracy isn’t a requirement in a TV series designed for entertainment. But it’s a strange Murphy-esque tendency, his flattening of dramatic effects and omission of some of the most interesting material available to him in favor of schematic moralizing and an erratic progressive-lite agenda.