It’s a curious exercise, watching a film that clearly expects sympathy for a rich man with ridiculously lavish spending habits.
Full disclosure, I’m not sure I even know who Roy Halston Frowick was before seeing this movie, which merely looked compelling to me when seeing the trailer. I could count on one hand the number of fashion designers I know by name. My fashion choices are limited to Christmas gifts from family, thrift stores, and bankrupt department store liquidation sales. Funny that one of those department stores currently rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy, JCPenney, was once part of Halston’s first failed business venture, when he attempted to take his brand mainstream in the early eighties and it tarnished his brand with all other high-end fashion retailers.
In writer-director Frédérik Tcheng’s telling of the story of the Halston company being taken over after an acquisition by Esmark Inc., Tcheng brings in many people close to Halston to lament the plummeting amount of control over what had once been his own company. These include several models who once worked for him, a couple of his secretaries, his niece he hired to work for him, even his best friend Liza Minnelli. A couple of them mention an executive from International Playtex (also owned by Esmark) who was brought in to be a new managing director of Halston. One of the interview subjects literally refuses to say his name.
Well, you know what? The guy’s name was Carl Epstein, and based on his interviews for this movie as well as the choices he made regarding Halston Enterprises at the time, I am a fan. Halston’s close friends and family clearly, and okay understandably, resent Epstein for being so intricately involved in Halston’s ultimate downfall. But so far as I can tell, Halston’s personal downfall was really his own doing. This was a man who was not used to anyone saying no to him, and the in comes someone who says, hey wait a minute, you can’t spend a hundred grand just to fly your entire staff to an event abroad, or have your dinners flown on a private jet from New York City to Montauk. Not when you’re not actually in a position to afford these things, anyway, and you’re not even the one truly in control of the company besides.
These things are just common sense. I don’t feel bad about some insanely rich fashion designer, who doesn’t realize his tastes ultimately far exceed his income, being told he can’t keep blowing through cash at the same rate anymore. This movie seems to think I should, and I beg to differ.
Therein lies the underlying issue with Halston, which honestly could have worked harder to make me sympathize with this guy. I have no doubt it actually could have been done. Halston was a gay man born in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1930s who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 57, on the day of that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Surely that context informed how his personality developed, coming into riches and fame from humble beginnings and in the end having at least some level of struggle with substance abuse.
I want to know more about that. And Tcheng touches on it, with a brief interlude showing a fascinating old clip of paranoid propaganda about homosexuals and showing negative-film footage (to protect identities) of gay men on a beach, doing literally nothing more salacious than being a little swishy. Footage of Halston included in this film reveals him to have been refined and sophisticated, and also a little effeminate. What was it like growing up for him? What did his parents, his siblings think about him when he was a child? What were his personal relationships like and how do they fit into his getting HIV, and when was he even diagnosed? Halston can’t be bothered with any of these questions, even though they would make for a far more compelling film.
Instead, the arc of the story here is mostly focused on Halston’s rise and fall as a superstar businessman with a taste for excess both in ridiculous business expenses and in entertainment, hanging out with Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor at Studio 54. And plenty of this actually is fascinating, if less personal. It’s just that Tcheng leaves so much out it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in an obsessive (and apparently sometimes bullying) member of the one percent struggling with becoming less rich.