Halston: A Familiar Story of Artistic Angst

Halston looking out the rolled-down window of his limousine

I’ll be honest with you from the jump: high fashion is far from my area of expertise. Stories about troubled and ambitious auteurs struggling viciously with the struggles of artistic success on the other hand, that’s a different thing. While Netflix’s new mini-series Halston, from Sharr White and Ryan Murphy, is about one of the most influential designers in the history of high fashion and the impact he made on the industry, the appeal for me is in the more universal story within that story. That’s what attracted me to the show.

Well, to clarify: it was the fact that Ewan McGregor was in it that got me to watch Halston in the first place. He’s been a favorite of mine for ages, and this is a role and a performance that showcases some of his strongest qualities as an actor—both his winsome charisma, and a streak of venom underneath it. McGregor’s handsome, perfect smile can charm the pants off most anyone, but he also has a talent for a certain type of bitter, biting resentment, which blends perfectly into that charm for a role like this.

Halston standing in the airport with his posse, including Liza, Elsa, and Joe

This integration of flamboyance and genuine darkness certainly draws comparisons in my mind to his drastically underrated turn in the drastically underrated Birds of Prey, though Halston is obviously a much more complex and nuanced character than the deliberately (and perfectly) un-complicated Roman Sionis. Halston, after all, was a real man, and one who had an enormous impact on his corner of the world. As portrayed by McGregor, the same spark that makes him a brilliant artist and a delightful social companion also makes him a temperamental asshole who lashes out at people when he falls short of his own expectations for himself.

Certainly, there are no shortage of movies and shows about brilliant men who create great things but mistreat and alienate the people in their personal life. In recent years, there’s been a growing feeling that these stories are played-out, and that that their overabundance even contributes to a cultural tendency to forgive them for their misbehavior. I understand and sympathize this feeling, and much as I did enjoy it, I don’t think Halston breaks any new ground in terms of differentiating itself from other such stories.

If my phrasing there, “other such stories,” seems to imply treating this as complete fiction as opposed to something based on reality, let me clarify: I mean that any telling of any true story is colored by which facts are included and which are not. It’s the nature of the beast. Halston plays things relatively safe in terms of what’s included in a biography of this kind, at least by today’s standards. If this were even ten years ago, the depiction of Halston’s sexuality—both how explicit it is, and how matter-of-fact it is—would have been notable, but thankfully we’re at the point culturally where it simply feels obvious and natural. This doesn’t need to be a story centered around Being Gay In A Homophobic World, because there many other aspects to Halston’s life worth exploring as well.

What’s more curious are the things that are left out. Turbulent childhoods are often a centerpiece of the tortured genius narrative, but Halston’s is told in very a sparing and restrained manner. Also, one of the few things I do know about the reality of Halston was that he was one of the first fashion designers to hire women of color as models, but the series is strangely quiet on pointing that out as well. We see the racial diversity on-screen, but it’s not remarked upon as unusual. Neither of these are necessarily bad storytelling decisions, but I would be interested to see what someone with more knowledge on the subject would have to say about these choices.

Halston talking on the phone in front of a collection of dress sketches

However familiar the angles are here, though, these angles have always appealed to me. Of course I’m not famous or renowned, and few ever become as much so as Halston was, but there’s something that speaks to me about the relationship between the artist, the art, and the audience. It’s that dichotomy between a desperate yearning for the audience’s approval, and resentment towards that audience for the power you’ve given them over your life.

Halston, at least as a character in this series, was a man whose life’s work was not just in fashion, but in his own identity. He left his childhood life behind and made a name for himself—just one—that encompassed both his personal life and his professional one, making a rejection of one feel like a rejection of both. You want to be stubborn, to dig your heels in and insist that your way is correct and everyone else is wrong, but if you really felt that way you wouldn’t have the drive to create that makes you care this much about creating in the first place.

Bless those creatives who are not plagued by these mental gymnastics, but I know I’m not one of them. Granted, I’m also not famous or acclaimed, but then few people ever are, at least to the degree that Halston was. The point is that this impulse is familiar to the artistic mind, and it’s one that this series captures quite well.

Written by Alex Boruff

Alex Boruff is a New York-based screenwriter, author, actor, director, podcast editor, and overall creative-type goofball.

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