The late, gay, groundbreaking fashion designer Halston (born Roy Halston Frowick) is such a fascinating subject that two separate filmmakers have made documentaries about him in this decade. In my 2012 review of Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, I said, “If you can overlook writer/director Whitney Sudler-Smith’s unnecessary and self-indulgent intrusiveness, his doc…is informative, enjoyable and respectful of its topic.”
Creative overreach also bogs down Halston (1091 Media/The Orchard/ CNN Films) from director Frédéric Tcheng (Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel). While most of Halston is a straightforward and enlightening portrait of the legendary fashion icon and his tragic fall, the inclusion of a character described as a “fictional narrator” detracts from the material. It’s as if Tcheng didn’t trust that celebrated, self-made man Halston alone would be a captivating enough topic to hold the audience’s attention. He’s wrong, of course.
Like Ultrasuede, Halston is chock full of interviews. Halston’s praises are sung by his devoted muse Liza Minnelli, best pal and filmmaker Joel Schumacher, actress Marisa Berenson, as well as by his models, including Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Karen Bjornson. But it’s not all sweetness and light, as interviews with some of Halston’s design assistants, secretaries and business associates reveal. However, some of the most poignant interview footage is with Halston’s niece Lesley Frowick, who came to New York to work with her uncle.
Nevertheless, Halston’s story, from his birth in Iowa to his beginnings as a milliner at Bergdorf-Goodman (he designed Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat!) and his ascent to couturier to the stars and Studio 54 habitué is nothing short of a fairy tale. As we know, fairy tales are stocked with forces of evil, and Halston’s saga is no exception. Negative influences included longtime lover Victor Hugo (Rojas), drug dealers, betrayal by corporate interests at Norton Simon, Esmark and JC Penney, infighting with colleagues including jewelry designer Elsa Peretti and junior designer John Ridge, and ultimately control-freak Halston himself.
Regardless, Halston’s story never fails to fascinate, in spite of Tcheng’s artistic meddling. Even at the end of Halston’s life, when he was able to reunite with estranged family members, having relocated to California following his AIDS diagnosis, he brought a spark of energy with him.
One unexpected takeaway from Halston is that if Hollywood ever deigned to do a biopic of the Hollywood-obsessed designer, Rufus Wainwright, a dead ringer for Halston, would be perfect in the lead.