Currently Viewing and Reading – Halston

Netflix has a new bio-pic on the life of Halston, and I watched it so you don’t have to. Actually, you might want to watch it anyway, just make sure your expectations are appropriate. Let me explain.

Anyone who has ever watched a movie or program “based on” the life of a historical figure already knows that the truth is not the first matter of consideration. Probably the nuttiest example I can think of is the series of mini-films Karl Lagerfeld made on the life of Coco Chanel. These were, of course, long-play commercials meant to bolster the Chanel myth. The scenes were highly contrived.

In the same manner, I found Halston to be contrived, especially the first episode. We get a short look at Roy Halston Frowick’s miserable childhood, in which the Iowa farmboy is inspired by a handful of chicken feathers to make his mother a hat to soothe her feelings after a violent confrontation with his father. This sets the stage for inspiration after inspiration, all highly contrived, in a Forrest Gump sort of way.

Raindrops on a ruined suede coat lead to Halston’s adoption of Utlrasuede (which the scrip insinuates Halston invented. Not so). A chance encounter with a mirror post-shower leads to Halston’s signature sweptback hair style. The inspirations are never-ending. Liza Minelli even tells Halston at one point that inspiration is going to find him. And so it does, and does, and does.

One advantage that bio-pics often have over documentaries is the ability to make the subject more human and relatable. But as Ed Austin, Halston’s longtime boyfriend said, after years of being with Halston he didn’t know him. The same can be said for the viewers of this mini-series. Three hours later, and I had no sense of who Halston actually was, beyond a lot of drugs and sex and temper tantrums. I found Ewan MacGregor’s portrayal of Halston to be unsympathetic, and that’s a shame. Several years ago I attended a talk by his niece Leslie Frowick who showed him to be a caring and thoughtful uncle. One dimensional characters always look shallow.

So I did what any inquiring mind does. I reread a book, in this case the book on which the program was based, Simply Halston by Steven Gaines. Gaines had the advantage of writing his book soon after Halston’s death in 1990 so he was able to interview most of the major players in Halston’s life. He had actually met Halston, and had written a book on Studio 54.

Simply Halston is a sad story of a man who had everything he ever wanted, and yet had so little that made him happy. Heavy drug use along with unprotected sex in the time of HIV, combined with poor business decisions destroyed his talent, his ambition, his business, and ultimately, his life.

So why would anyone want to see this program? Watch it for the clothes and Elsa Peretti’s jewelry, both of which are glorious. Some of the garments in the show are vintage Halston, while others are careful reproductions. It’s a Seventies fashion fest!

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Currently Viewing and Reading – Halston

  1. jacq staubs

    I met Halston while at Garfinckel’s and again at Martha’s in Palm Beach ( pa/personal appearance) and saw him at ’54 a few times. The atmosphere at ’54 was not at all the Roman orgy many love to imagine. You perfectly analyze his life experience / relationshp with drugs and unfortunate choices resulting from them. I could not finish watching the entire thing- bored me. I ( as well) loved the “rear view mirror” of the jewelry/fashion and social scene.So interesting – his pill box hat started it all? Great review Lizzie!

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  2. Michellebeth

    Agree with you on all counts! It’s hard to watch actors play real people, especially those as well known to the public as Halston and Liza Minnelli. Not for one moment did I forget I was watching Ewan MacGregor. Halston seemed to have a heart only as he was dying—obviously too-little-too late. Too much LIza! Not enough Elsa! And way too few of those beautiful clothes. I haven’t read the book you mention, but I can recommend the “Halston” documentary from 2019 (available on Prime). Sensitively done, that one speaks for itself.

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  3. jonathanwalford

    I see what you are saying Lizzie, but my expectations were low going into the series as I don’t trust any biopic for accuracy. I will rave about the clothes and sets because they really got that right and it was the artistic recreation of the period that was the real star of this series. I already knew Halton’s story front and back, so I was pleasantly surprised when they got something right! (OT I REALLY want to see a full film about The Battle of Versailles – there was SO much more to that story from everyone’s perspective, and although there is no known film of the entire event, and few photographs, almost everyone who was there is still alive, or left interviews about their experience at the event.) Back to Halston… I am not sure if I need to see more in a biopic series – that’s was books are for, so to that end I was happy with what I saw, however, it was supposed to be 8 episodes long rather than 5, but COVID happened in the middle of filming, so they had to pivot and come up with a solution to wrap the series up.

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