Halston: Portrait of An Artiste

The template of the tortured gay artiste desperately needs to be revamped with an authentic queer interpretation by a wholly queer actor
Halston: Portrait of An Artiste

Before anything else, let us look at what Ryan Murphy has done, in the past few years, with the narration of queer stories and voices in cinema and television. A queer television mogul, he invested his money in critically acclaimed shows like Pose, featuring a spectacular cast of trans and queer men and women of colour. He also rebooted the film adaptation of the popular Broadway play The Boys in the Band, led by a queer cast facing off against each other in a chamber drama that explored with authenticity and feeling the dynamics of what goes into the construction of queer relations in our society. His deeply queer aesthetic of bright and dazzling colours, as evident from his earlier ventures, such as the popular Glee and the more recent The Prom, do not undermine his capacity to dig up the darkness of the queer psyche in the critically lauded The Assassination of Gianni Versace.

On the back of this, his Netflix-produced, five-part web series on the famous American fashion designer Halston (played by an eclectic Ewan McGregor) was something that was highly anticipated. Halston has always been one of the most controversial figures in American fashion and although his is one of the long-standing legacies in the American scene, his life has never really been used for dramatisation. After all the story has the makings of everything that Murphy loves so much – the dazzling fabrics and colours of New York couture in the late 1900s, the trauma of childhood, the heat of lusty relationships, the navigations of art and commerce, and, above all, drugs and rock and roll. And I say with great pleasure that Murphy delivers what is one of the most ridiculously watchable and impeccably pulpy Netflix originals I have seen in a long, long while.

The story does not begin with the childhood of Halston. Instead it only gives us glimpses of it: his unwavering bond with his mother, his initial inspirations growing up in a suburban American county far removed the dizzying world of glamorous New York, an abusive family – trauma that he carries with himself for the rest of his life. All these cornerstones in his character are given tidy little arcs over the course of the series, and end up serving as pivotal and – in one case – life-altering moments. Murphy begins, instead, in the middle of the scene where Halston, under the name of Bergdorf Goodman, has already made a name for himself as the creator of the Kennedy pillbox hat, and is yearning day and night to make a separate identity for himself as a designer of clothes.

The first hour-and-a-half underline the beginning of his relationship with Liza Minnelli, a woman who will eventually go on to become not just his greatest muse but also the bearer of the most meaningful relationship in his life. His equations with fellow colleagues, his desire to outshine Balenciaga, his ingenious invention of the plastic water-proof suede jacket and his mad genius, which would come and disappear in spurts, are all outlined here. The most deliciously watchable episode is, of course, the 1973 Battle of Versailles. Running a little shy of one hour, it is an entire film in itself with its soaring ego clashes, last-moment mishaps and a final roaring climactic stretch that reaffirms the fundamental rags-to-riches template of the overall narrative. This is also important in the way it views past trauma as an important determinant in driving present decisions. The moment in which Halston decides to go commercial with his art is a moment that is a culmination of past trauma and insecurity that had left him feeling vulnerable in a world that is primarily hostile to all living within it. And this very deal, signed in a moment of absolute panic, is what ruins Halston eventually.

The trajectory of the series is predictable, of course. We know that the artiste will see the face of success and descend into a vortex of unprecedented drugs and sex. And at the same time as the genius gets diluted in the face of this scene of excess, friends turn into foes and ruin awaits, till redemption is tasted sweetly in a moment of small, albeit pyrrhic, triumph. But even when the screenplay seems to drag, what keeps us invested in the story is the performance of the figure at the centre of this mayhem.

Which brings me to my next point. Although McGregor offers a career-best performance in his interpretation of the Halston persona, one cannot shake off the feeling that it is still a heterosexual A-list star essaying the role of a gay man. The story of the tortured gay man, as mentioned by Rahul Desai, has been seen before in films like The Imitation Game, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, and although Haslton as a series does not shy away from explicit scenes of convincingly simulated sex and the exploration of queer politics, the template of the tortured gay artiste desperately needs to be revamped with an authentic queer interpretation by a wholly queer actor.

The writing by Murphy ensures the authenticity, but in an age where representation is a pivotal concern for most, this issue needs to be addressed as fast as possible. We need more films like The Boys in the Band and series like Pose, where queer appropriation will be a thing of the past. But this in no way is to undermine the brilliance of the craft that McGregor brings to the fore. His performance adds more nuance to the character than the screenplay, be it in the scene where he asks his lawyer to pay off his blackmailing lover, or where he asserts his need to be alone to another lover. His lack of rootedness in light of a tormented childhood and a demanding work-space are true queer mainstream experiences, and McGregor brings great panache and empathy to these strains of his character. The full range of his acting chops come forth in the scenes involving the secretion of the Halston perfume and the final episode, where his estranged but long-term colleague, played by an excellent and ever-reliable David Pittu, reads out reviews of his swansong. As Halston stares out of his town-house, his steely exterior shows his indifference towards the critics who never understood him but his eyes and their hardly-concealed tears show the triumph he feels at his vision being finally understood by a world that has been more than just cruel to him and his art.

I wish the depth in the performance had extended to the writing too, digging deeper into concerns such as the process of the creation of the brilliant plastic suede and the hetero-romantic relationship he shared with Liza Minnelli, who is essayed by a hugely watchable Krista Rodriguez (especially in the recreation of the Cabaret scene). I only wish the writers had made the choice to spend as much time on the peripheral characters in the Halston universe in a web series that is an excellent return to form for creator Ryan Murphy and a definite must-watch this coming Pride Month. When the pulp of the sex and the drugs and colourful fabrics fade, the nuances do remain and settle like dust.

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