Monday, June 28, 2021

Roy Halston & Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor and Krysta Rodriguez in Halston, now streaming on Netflix.

Ewan McGregor does the finest work in his career in the title role of Halston, the absorbing five-episode Netflix series, created and directed by Daniel Minahan, about the multi-talented fashion designer who turned himself into a commodity, lost control of his brand and died of AIDS-related cancer, at 57, in 1990. McGregor became a star very early in his career, as a junkie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, where he combined an essential sweetness and earnestness with a punk bravado. You looked at those soft, pampered, boyish looks and that level gaze at the camera and you couldn’t figure out where the element of danger was coming from. But he’s been a reliable leading man for so many years now (Trainspotting is a quarter of a century old) that I’m not sure either audiences or critics still notice just how good he still is – in films like The Ghost Writer and Our Kind of Traitor and Christopher Robin. He’s always had impressive, sometimes startling, range, but what he pulls off in Halston is so dramatically different from anything he’s tried before that this time I think it’s impossible to miss the caliber of his acting. Roy Halston – he dropped the first name after he moved on from making hats (most famously the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to JFK’s inauguration) to designing dresses – is a kid from Iowa and Indiana who moved to New York City and built a persona for himself from the ground up, like Cary Grant or Truman Capote. He stopped sounding like a Midwesterner; he didn’t sound quite like anybody else. McGregor digs into Halston’s showmanship, his charisma and his imperiousness, but though he’s witty and sometimes hilarious, it’s not a campy performance.  You’re always aware of his reflectiveness – of the man who’s looking at himself in an invisible mirror – and of an undercurrent of loneliness and dissatisfaction. This is acting of genuine depth.

The script, which six writers contributed to (including Ryan Murphy, who’s one of the executive producers, and the playwright Sharr White), keeps hinting that these emotions are the remnant of a complicated childhood with a father who didn’t accept him and a depressive mother. But the flashbacks aren’t very helpful, and that part of his biography never gets fleshed out. (As far as we know, he cuts off contact with his mother after he launches his career and he never talks about her, so the scene where he weeps hysterically at her funeral feels tacked on. Presumably it’s meant to explain his regret at having excised her from his life, but we’re left guessing why he did so and how he felt about that decision.) However, McGregor is so compelling and his portrait of Halston is so layered that it doesn’t matter much that we don’t completely understand the roots of his behavior; the actor has managed to string the episodes in the character’s life together emotionally. We can see that all the elements of his behavior that aren’t linked to his vigorous self-invention, like his extravagance (he spends a fortune on orchids, which he claims is part of his inspiration and therefore a necessary business expense), are linked to his unspecified unhappiness. These include his need to feel protected and his habit of staging grandiose quarrels with many of the people closest to him, especially his collaborators, whose feelings he hurts so badly that they run away from him. And of course many of his worst displays are the result of his massive drug-taking (mostly cocaine), which also slashes away at his productiveness.

Halston has many things wrong with it that you’d expect in a glossy, glamorous miniseries about a star designer. The writing is erratic – hardly unexpected considering the number of authors who worked on it. (The source material is Steven Gaines’ 1991 bio Simply Halston: The Untold Story.) Sometimes it sinks into melodrama, especially in the penultimate episode, when the protagonist’s life starts to come apart. The scenes where we get to see Halston creating his gowns are so entertaining that when, inevitably, they slip mostly out of the narrative, we miss them; it’s a special treat for the viewer that the series spends so much time and detail on his final triumph, designing the costumes for his friend Martha Graham’s Stravinsky ballet Pers├ęphone in 1987. (Mary Beth Peil has a sharp cameo as Graham, who died just a year after Halston.) The worst parts of the series focus on his relationships with his lovers, Ed Austin (Floyd Bennet, whom I liked in The Looming Tower), and a man who goes under the name of Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez). Ed, whom Halston picks up at a gay bar, seems interesting at first – a little cynical, a little acerbic – but then he turns into an acolyte, which dulls him out. Their romance is barely sketched in; it deteriorates into clich├ęd complaints that Halston’s ambition closes Ed out of his life, and then Ed winds up, somewhat mysteriously, working for him. Victor is a hustler whose leap to boyfriend doesn’t seem to be down to anything other than the great sex he provides. (Much is made of the size of his penis – especially by Victor himself.) He’s an egomaniac who fancies himself an artist of some unspecified kind, and when Halston refuses to make him his creative partner, he blackmails him with videotapes of their colorful encounters with other male prostitutes, some of them in the back rooms of Studio 54. It’s easy to believe that Victor turned Halston on but tough to buy that they stayed together as long as they did – or that Halston was ever in love with him, as he proclaims at their final meeting. (Rodriguez is pretty bad in the part; his fits of pique aren’t even fun to watch. He has only one good moment – when he’s diagnosed with AIDS and asked to write down the names of his sex partners, and he proclaims, grinning, that he’s going to need a lot more paper. It’s Victor’s sole moment of gallantry.)

What makes Halston unusual among celebrity bio miniseries is its insistence on portraying the other supporting characters with affection and complexity. The accomplished New York stage actor David Pittu, who has never, in my experience, been less than excellent, gives a high-comic performance as the illustrator Joe Eula, one of Halston’s earliest collaborators, that becomes better and better as he opens it up to more downbeat shades of feeling. Bill Pullman catches both the lighter and darker sides of David Mahoney, who sells Halston on the idea of letting Norton Simon scoop up his career; his scenes with McGregor are refreshingly even-handed.  Rebecca Dayan is dynamic as Elsa Peretti, the model who turns out to be a talented designer in her own right. The nicest surprise is the sweetness with which the series treats Liza Minnelli, played with tremendous charm by Krysta Rodriguez. She’s warm and companionable, and despite her self-deprecating humor, she’s self-aware. And her loyalty to Halston is unswerving. It’s interesting that he never turns on her, as he does on the other people he’s close to, but then, she’s a star in her own right; he’s not in a position to say, however unkindly and unjustly, that she feeds off him and would be nothing without him (the claims he makes about Joe and Elsa). And Rodriguez’s numbers are a bonus; we get to see her perform “Liza with a Z” in her nightclub act and a song and dance she works up for a Paris showcase of the world’s most celebrated fashion monarchs. For all its virtues, the musical numbers in Fosse/Verdon felt second-hand, obligatory, but Krysta Rodriguez’s rendition of “Liza with a Z” is fresh and vivacious – it doesn’t simply make you long for the real Minnelli version. (It was, famously, the title song for her great 1972 TV special, which Fosse directed.) Rodriguez and McGregor share the most moving scene in Halston, where Halston, already sick with what he’s publicizing as liver cancer, tells Liza that he’s going to leave New York and spend some time on a road trip along the Pacific Coast, and it’s clear that by “some time” he means his remaining time. You get far more of worth in Halston than you have any right to expect in a gossipy TV bio. And you don’t want to miss what Ewan McGregor brings to the title role.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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