Halston, the latest Netflix series from Ryan Murphy, is all about style. In its quest to depict the life and career of mid-century American fashion icon Roy Halston, it aims for and often achieves the sort of casual elegance that the designer would likely have appreciated, at least from a visual perspective. Murphy’s penchant for pageantry is perhaps best served on a project like this, where costuming, hair, makeup, and production design are all of paramount importance. But like many of his other shows, there’s an inherent shallowness beneath the glamour. Despite Ewan McGregor’s charming performance as the enigmatic Halston, the series only seems interested in exploring him as an artist — its refusal to dig deeper into who he was and what made him that way makes Halston a tasty visual morsel, but ultimately a little unsatisfying.
This series chronicles Halston’s professional life as a designer, beginning with one little pillbox hat that just happened to be worn on national television by none other than Mrs. Jackie Kennedy. From there, he would establish a signature line at his high-end boutique in New York City, creating sophisticated yet relaxed couture for women with clean, elegant lines.
Although he has an increasingly recognizable brand, he’s going broke trying to maintain the high standards (complete with fresh orchids) he set for his salon’s experience. He has a tight-knit, loyal team working with him: model/designer Elsa (Rebecca Dayan), expert fashion illustrator Joe (David Pittu), and the young but hopelessly strung out creative prodigy Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin). Yes, that Joel Schumacher. With their improvisational style, they’re the underdogs of the New York fashion scene. And Halston’s drive to succeed, to become more than a scared little boy from Indiana making hats to cheer up his abused mother, is clear.
Ewan McGregor’s performance is a lot of fun — he manages to showcase all the contradictions of Halston’s character. He is at once both aloof and desperately needy, arrogant yet deeply insecure. But the script fails to take advantage of the opportunity to delve into his backstory or inner life in any detail. We get glimpses, but that’s mostly thanks to McGregor being able to imbue his character with intense vulnerability. The overall narrative seems frustratingly unconcerned with any character analysis beyond what floats at the very surface.
This lack of curiosity extends to the other characters, who are all one-note as well. Halston may have the panache of a Ryan Murphy production, but it also falls victim to one of its creator’s greatest flaws: a propensity for style over substance. There are moments of pure creative bliss when Halston has a flash of inspiration to design a gorgeous piece of clothing or when his efforts are recognized in an international fashion competition to restore Versailles, itself a relic of empty beauty.
Still, in between the major set pieces, where the actual narrative is taking place, there’s not much there. The dialogue is often hackneyed, and it has a jarring tendency to jump back and forth in time ineffectually: it’s an affectation that hardly substitutes for an actual plot. Indeed, Halston comprises plot elements that never quite cohere into something larger than the sum of its parts.
Only the sequences between Halston and his long-time friend and muse Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) have a real sense of warmth and vitality. Rodriguez, for her part, doesn’t just do an impersonation of young Liza, fresh off an Academy Award for Cabaret — she breathes life into her. They have a delightful rapport with one another, and their relationship is the only one that feels genuine.
Despite its weaknesses, Halston has plenty to recommend it. The costume design is impeccable — they capture the beauty of not just Halston’s work but Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, and several other icons from the period. Ewan McGregor is magnetic in the lead role, bringing charisma and vulnerability to his beleaguered designer. But repeatedly, Ryan Murphy gets in his own way, and a weak script prevents Halston from reaching any great heights. Fans of the fashion designer may be better served by the 2019 documentary Halston instead.