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!