Director: Daniel Minahan
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Bill Pullman, Krysta Rodriguez, David Pittu, Rebecca Dayan, Gian Franco Rodriguez
Streaming on: Netflix
The inherent boon of the gay-artist story is that it doesn’t need an excuse to be visually extravagant. The stylized aesthetic is built into the frame. Throw in the swinging 70s, and the era’s reckless curiosity about culture, colour, loving and living in general – and it’s an air-tight formula. But the inherent curse of the gay-artist story is that it doesn’t need an excuse to be visually extravagant. More often than not, the vibrancy of form robs the narrative of emotional and intellectual depth. The sex-drugs-rocknroll template is so irresistible on a textural level that the rags-to-riches-to-internal-demons arc eschews human individualism in favour of a generic film-making explosion.
As a result, the identity becomes one big blur, and scenes of one flamboyant biopic merely merge into another. For instance, when I tried to jot down some notes after watching Halston – a slick five-episode mini-series based on the life of the mononymous American fashion designer – I seemed to be recalling moments from the Freddie Mercury movie Bohemian Rhapsody and the Elton John biopic Rocketman instead. While thinking of Halston’s platonic relationship with muse and future jewellery-designing legend Elsa Peretti, or even his unshakable bond with musical superstar Liza Minnelli, the lonely phone call made by Rami Malek’s mournful Mercury to his former fiancee/muse Lucy Boynton kept coming to mind. Similarly, Halston’s cocaine-driven spiral and volatile affair with partner Victor evoke images of Mercury’s lashing out at his bandmates, or Elton’s rehab and rain-drenched spat with manager-cum-lover John Reid. In a sense, Halston is another brick in the flashy Hollywood wall that reframes the complexities of sexuality and genius to fit the wet-cement gimmickry of the tortured-soul prototype.
The irony, at least in Halton’s case, is that his art – the elegant minimalism of his fashion eye – stays at sensory odds with his swashbuckling lifestyle. The writing doesn’t do nearly enough to delve into the fact that his talent seems to adopt the role of a wish-fulfillment device. He makes his designs everything that he can’t be: relaxed, clean, economical and sharp. Unfortunately, the series itself wears his feelings rather than his clothes. The highs are all too familiar and the lows all too simplistic – he rises, reigns, dazzles, flies too close to the sun, succumbs to his ego and wilts. There is nothing more and nothing less. The rhythm is old: A crisis in his personal life immediately triggers one in his professional life, and the phase of him shedding all his loyal collaborators one by one unfurls with sterile certainty. It just happens because it’s supposed to. How else will a God hit rockbottom?
The last time Ryan Murphy exec-produced a limited series about a fashion designer, the primal tone went hand in glove with the sprawling duality of the story. But The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story was, as the title suggests, less of a standard biopic and more a pop-psychological juxtaposition of success (Versace) against failure (his murderer). The entertainment factor was built into what was essentially an exposition of a time just as much as an investigation of a culture. But Halston is about one person battling himself, and the awkward running length – 5 episodes is neither purist long-form nor flimsy listicle – is testament to the show’s sheer lack of dimension. The prettier and more hallucinatory the setting (the eye-in-the-sky Manhattan studio), the emptier the factory-produced journey starts to feel.
Halston is another brick in the flashy Hollywood wall that reframes the complexities of sexuality and genius to fit the wet-cement gimmickry of the tortured-soul prototype.
The tragedy of course is that the series is made to be criminally watchable. It doesn’t flag in pace or intensity, with the second episode – where the idealistic American designer goes up against Europe’s best at the Paris’ Versailles Palace – constructed as a rousing underdog movie of its own accord. The final episode, where an ailing and defeated Halston reclaims his love for design, is centered on his hunger for critical validation (“Reviews don’t matter”). A scene where Halston is read out the newspaper reviews of a Martha Graham stage performance he designed for is beautifully rendered – reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins’ titular character in Hitchcock silently waiting in the lobby of the Psycho premiere, and conducting a symphony of terrified audience reactions during the infamous shower sequence. Halston’s heart spills over when the Times review is read, a fiercely private victory a lifetime in the making – an illuminating snapshot of the traditionally fraught relationship between art and professional criticism.
Having said that, the clear highlight of the flawed-biopic ecosystem is often the central performance. Ewan McGregor is spellbinding as the embattled designer, like a queer storm in search of spiritual tenderness – and how can he not be? No matter how divisive the film or series tends to be, this unique selling point is always beyond doubt – but also by design. The unblemished thrill of watching gifted actors playing people they’re not extends into the contentious thrill of watching a heterosexual actor owning the role of a homosexual artist. The unaninmous acclaim they then get – Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury swept the awards season, Darren Criss won a lead-acting Emmy for playing the sociopathic Andrew Cunanon, Taron Edgarton as Elton John was a revelation, McGregor will be an Emmy frontrunner – is also an unerring consequence of the heteronormative prism through which these stories are told and viewed.
The clear highlight of the flawed-biopic ecosystem is often the central performance. Ewan McGregor is spellbinding as the embattled designer, like a queer storm in search of spiritual tenderness – and how can he not be?
Without taking anything away from the phenomenal performance art on display (McGregor’s velvety voice has a life of its own), the universe that these immaculately composed characters consume feels superficial and showy for precisely the same reasons the actors shine in their parts. Adjectives like “brave” and “brutal” are routinely used to embellish these parts the way they would be for actors losing themselves in the roles of depraved capitalists, differently abled visionaries or Victorian-era slaves – and, therefore, condescend on a people by reducing them to the extremes of sexual and cultural character. “Oscar bait” is a legitimate term in that sense, and Halston is the epitome of the easy-to-admire but hard-to-fathom Hollywood habit. In an industry slowly opening up to inclusion of all kinds, the prestige of having an A-lister knock it out of the park as a tormented gay star still remains considerably more seductive than the noble casting of a queer actor.
We are perfectly within our rights to celebrate McGregor in what is arguably a career-best turn. But our appreciation also defines the irony of perceiving the “larger-than-life” and “unhinged” palette he headlines. The decision to cast the Scottish actor might have in fact provided the makers with the license to approximate the kitschy splendour of the 70s. In a normal universe, it should be the other way around: the environment is expected to find its faces. But, to paraphrase the most iconic black actor of this generation from a film in which he plays a homophobic black lawyer defending a gay client, who in turn is played by the most loved white – and heterosexually dignified – actor of our times: “With all due respect, we don’t live in a normal universe anymore, do we?” Incidentally, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for that film. Denzel Washington did not.