Documentary, not rated, 105 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
It’s a tale worthy of a classic Greek tragedy. A small-town boy makes good, acquires enormous fame, wealth, and power, and then — through a combination of hubris, miscalculation, tragic flaw, and the cruel hand of fate — crashes to Earth and is destroyed.
This is the life examined in Halston, an ambitious and often stirring look at the career of Roy Halston Frowick, who dropped his first and last names and went with what remained, changing the pronunciation from Hal-ston to Haul-ston for what he perceived as a more elegant effect (and he was seldom wrong about such things).
Writer-director Frédéric Tcheng (Dior and I) has, by and large, done a worthy job of tracing the rise and fall of the man described as America’s first great international fashion superstar. We get the youthful Halston, a handsome (he could have been played by the young Robert Vaughn) and charming novice designer of hats for Bergdorf Goodman, who put Jackie Kennedy in her famous pillbox hat for JFK’s inauguration and started a fashion craze. We see him strike out on his own and build an empire by cutting fabric and designing clothes that, as his friend and muse Liza Minelli put it to him, “danced on you.” We see him working long hours with fierce attention to detail. We watch him as he surrounds himself with a coterie of beautiful, skinny models dubbed “The Halstonettes,” who parade his clothing on fashion runways, appear with him in public, and obviously adore him. We’re there as he travels to Versailles and China, and designs his palatial headquarters in New York’s Olympic Tower.
The downward spiral begins with too much cocaine and celebrity adventures at Studio 54, a romance with a wrong guy named Victor Hugo, and then the sale of his line to Norton Simon, which left him creative control, but not, as the fine print eventually revealed, the rights to his own name.
Fueled by drugs and dizzying success, his ego grows and drives him to rages and tantrums. As one observer puts it, “He knew how to get publicity; the problem was, he began to believe it all.” Then, against all advice, he makes a devastating misstep: he licenses his brand to J.C. Penney. The fashion world shuns him, and the press sneers at his pivot “from class to mass.”
And then the corporate suits come in and cut him off at the knees.
Tcheng muddies his tale with the ill-advised framing device of a narrator-sleuth (Tavi Gevinson) searching the Halston files for clues to the master’s downfall. And he stretches the narrative out a little too long (it seems to have been trimmed from an original two hours to an hour and three-quarters, but another 15 minutes would not have been missed). But there’s a wealth of material on a fascinating icon and authentic tragic figure in American culture.