With a front-row seat to the runways of 1970s American fashion, Halston misses the mark without the usual Ryan Murphy magic
If the highlight of a major limited series is the fleeting appearance of Vera Farmiga sniffing a jockstrap, chances are the narrative isn’t doing the job it needs to. Through the eyes of a cold and elusive creator, Halston explores the rise and fall (and rise again) of the eponymous fashion legend, with the five-episode series encapsulating a 13-year lifespan. Enriched by bold, romantic visuals and trademark stylised aesthetics, it’s not hard to detect the crafted hand of Ryan Murphy firmly guiding the ship. Yet, unlike Murphy’s previous outings Pose and American Crime Story, Halston doesn’t hit the nail on the emotional head or decide what it wants to set out to achieve.
There are certainly glimmers of the spectacular, including show-stopping musical numbers starring Liza with a Z. However, the overall viewing experience is akin to waiting to be called into a job interview. You’re eagerly scanning the room for the smallest visual cues, but ultimately miss the environment’s impact because you’re too nervous. Or in this case, a distinct lack of humanity.
In his Steve Jobs turtleneck, Halston presents as the fear-mongering boss, taking us through the detailed stages of creation to couture. While we certainly don’t need to be so intimately introduced to developments of fragrance building, the behind-the-scenes scrutiny accurately shapes the man the world knew Halston to be. Like an untouchable Disney villain, he surveys his fashioned kingdom with a fine-tooth comb for perfection. Despite snapshots of how Halston relates to life’s day-to-day anguish, there’s only so far into the soul we’re able to intrude. The pieces of the emotional jigsaw every writer strives for don’t connect, never shaking off Halston’s impenetrable coldness. Surprising, from a creator that made Andrew Cunanan seem sexy and misunderstood.
In his typical fashion, Murphy semi-revives the series through idealised music. Scenes of Studio 54 fill our screens with life and character, leaving us longing for a sought-after past while providing the springboard for a drug-fuelled lens. Somewhat bizarrely, Episode Four’s introduction of glamourous addiction encourages glimpses of the emotion and humanity we’re getting desperate for. Growing tension raises the stakes, with enough dramatic catfights to rival an episode of EastEnders. However, this effect soon flatlines. As the gaze of addiction moves to the 1980s AIDS crisis, the chosen portrayal leaves an anxious taste. With a variety of HIV-centred shows and queer representation, thanks to the likes of Pose and It’s a Sin, Halston fails to impress. We know Murphy can deliver a punch that packs emotional weight, but the show’s restrained, clinical nature cuts us off from being able to like, adore, or even care.
This being said, the performances are worth their weight in praise. Ewan McGregor dazzles as his eerily accurate Halston, but it’s the women who are the must-see stars. Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minelli proves you can successfully embody a living legend seen as untouchable, whilst almost solely responsible for the light relief and empathy that Halston has to its name. Rebecca Dayan’s Elsa Peretti is arguably our true protagonist, acting as the only window to Halston’s soul but guiding us to root for her own triumphs instead. It begs the question of the lack of female-fronted biopics on our Netflix home pages. Who wouldn’t rather see Coco Chanel’s double life as a German spy?
Do we like Halston? Not really.
Do we know what Halston sets out to achieve? We can’t really answer this, either.
Whether that’s connection or historical education, the series doesn’t tick enough boxes. The number of scenes devoid of human relatability makes for many skippable moments, with the audience unable to root for any success authentically. When it works, it’s unexpectedly sensual, but even these opportunities need working up to and processing. For frivolous fashion fun, Halston is a superficial laugh with songs thrown in for good measure. But if you’re looking for a binge that pulls in your head and heart, it might be best to keep scrolling past.
Words by Jasmine Valentine
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