In Netflix’s ‘Halston,’ Ewan McGregor Gives a Performance of Subdued and Stylish Presence

Netflix’s “Halston” chronicles the rise of a fashion icon and while visually rich, it avoids flashy storytelling. Instead this is another entry in producer Ryan Murphy’s ongoing projects that explore history through individual lives, all filtered through his particular sensibilities. Murphy has utilized alternate histories, satire and melodrama to reach into American experiences shaped by the times. “Halston” avoids many of those usual flourishes, going for a more straight-forward tone that results in a rather haunting tale of a man who got what he wanted, but it somehow slipped away for the most mundane reasons.

As the title states, the subject is Roy Halston (Ewan McGregor), a designer who first achieves real fame in 1961 when Jackie Kennedy wears his pillbox hat design to the presidential inauguration of husband John F. Kennedy. The moment of glory proves fleeting when women stop wearing hats by 1968 due to cultural shifts, including Jackie herself, who by then adopted more of a beehive look. In need of a breakthrough (and money), Halston starts seeking the next big inspiration. He decides to jump into fashioning a line of urban-friendly yet high-end wear that promotes elegant comfort, and more importantly, Halston envisions a boutique where his very persona or name is the brand. Like many great entrepreneurs, Halston can’t do it alone and is surrounded by a gallery of collaborators and lovers, including singer/actor Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez), who lends her voice and image to boost Halston’s brand. Meanwhile the designer’s personal life is quite the complex affair. Discreetly gay, Halston has several lovers, but once glory strikes he finds another muse in hard partying and drugs. Soon enough the excesses of success threaten all he has built.

Still refusing to be a conventional showrunner, Murphy doesn’t follow the biopic playbook with this five-part limited series. Instead of delivering a regular rags-to-riches tale, he opens “Halston” when the designer is already achieving recognition. With the writing and directing team he is seeking a more complex angle to follow. Halston’s story becomes one of immense talent but how such a figure ascends with the help of others. He may be a brilliant designer, but most of the first half of the series is spent following Halston around as he seeks resources, recruits help and seeks solace in the arms of lovers like the flamboyant Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez). His team becomes a group of dedicated collaborators imagined on a human scale, like model Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan) and illustrator Joe Elua (David Pittu). Rory Culkin even appears as a young Joel Schumacher, who gives Halston material but movie buffs know will later become a major film director. There are also plenty of wealthy elites, none of whom are particularly villainous, but instead wise with their expenses and smart when it comes to spotting talent. They genuinely give to Halston because he can deliver. Bill Pullman performs Norton Simon head David Mahoney as a corporate type who plays honest when asking Halston to let the company use his name.

There are fun and visually enrapturing moments typical of a Murphy production, such as when Halston pushes for the iconic design of a teardrop perfume bottle. To survive in the early days he agrees to pit his designs against big leaguers like Dior at a show in Versailles, where Minnelli helps with a vivacious musical number. But this isn’t a series purely driven by visuals, like Murphy’s recent “Ratched,” it becomes a more complex study of a personality. With every new victory Halston’s ego gets puffed and his stubbornness more firm. He admits he’s the classic artist who is a terrible businessman and before some real breakthroughs, the office is always broke, with barely enough to pay for lightbulbs. “Halston” never indulges in the kind of romanticized, feverish tone of other shows about excess. Halston parties hard at the legendary Studio 54, and before that we see him trying poppers with male prostitutes, but instead of evoking lush decadence, the series has somberness to it. It’s not judgmental, but more of a metaphor for someone who reaches a peak and simply loses control. For some people it happens with fun, with others it may be some other Achilles’ heel. 

For Ewan McGregor this is an impressively subdued performance. He could have easily gone wild with a typical genius gone wild act, but instead he turns Halston into a highly intelligent man who can be focused when it comes to his desires, but sloppy with so many other things, like doing cocaine in the office and coming in at four in the afternoon. One gets the sense Halston wasn’t in it purely for the money. He’s catty when necessary but McGregor adds a unique touch in that Halston always seems to be thinking. Another great highlight is Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli, who also avoids typical imitator traps and instead plays the artist like a real, talented individual with a strong presence. She’s also a genuine friend to Halston, even when she has to put up with his quirks. This performance also has wonderful energy from the get-go in a club sequence where Minnelli charms an audience with the tongue-twisting song “Liza with an A.”

Like an emperor in freefall, by the 1980s Halston’s personal habits were spiraling out of control and he would eventually lose a grip over his own company. He would also become another notable name to be touched by the AIDS epidemic. Thus Halston becomes another character in Ryan Murphy’s own expanding dramatic catalogue about that particular, powerful moment in gay culture where an entire community faced the onslaught of the virus and its social effects. Like other famous names, Halston prefers to say publicly he has some kind of cancer. As drama, the final moments of “Halston” are quite emotive, especially his final moment with Victor Hugo, where a real kindness shines through even after all the excess and power the designer’s personality has been bombarded with. We can rise ever so high and then be humbled. It’s a unique theme to be explored in a show like this. Murphy shows real versatility again as a showrunner and “Halston” has much style, but the substance is what matters.

Halston” begins streaming May 14 on Netflix.