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‘Halston’ promises sumptuous look at rise and fall of a fashion icon

Gay designer defined women’s style for an era

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Ewan McGregor as Halston and Gian Franco Rodriguez as Halston’s sometime lover, Victor Hugo. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

When we hear the name “Halston,” our first thought is not likely to be of his status as an LGBTQ hero – except in the sense that he designed clothes for best friend Liza Minnelli.

Yet Roy Halston Frowick, who became the first “celebrity designer” in a career that defined women’s fashion for an era and paved the way for the age of influencers by making his identity synonymous with his brand, can be clearly seen today as a queer pioneer. A gay midwestern boy whose grandmother gave him a love of sewing, he rose to fame after designing the famed pillbox hat worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s 1961 inauguration, and spent the next decade building a reputation fueled by the celebrity of a growing list of famous clients while honing a style that combined functionality, elegance and comfort in a way that seemed perfectly in tune with the rising women’s liberation movement.

The empowering ease and “effortless” sex appeal of his designs came to epitomize ‘70s style, a signature feature of the Disco Era that has cast its not-so-subtle influence on every generation since, and the fashion house he started became legendary in an industry that was still tightly controlled (like every other industry) by straight men. It was an accomplishment that might have gone unheralded by most at the time, but which historical perspective reveals as a groundbreaking moment in the LGBTQ community’s rise from the shadows.

Unfortunately, Halston’s fall from glory – marked by his loss of control over the company he started, through a series of corporate acquisitions that might fairly be described as nefarious – and subsequent 1990 death from AIDS-associated Kaposi’s sarcoma still largely overshadows his reputation (if not the fashions he created) in the popular imagination. But thanks to the arrival of the new Netflix limited series “Halston,” which drops on May 14, that is about to change.

Created and directed by Emmy-winner Daniel Minahan, the five-episode biographical portrait stars Ewan McGregor as Halston, and follows the legendary designer as he leverages his single, invented name into a worldwide fashion empire synonymous with luxury, sex, status, and fame, literally defining the ‘70s and ‘80s era New York in which he lives, before a hostile take-over forces him to battle for control of his most precious asset – the name Halston itself. McGregor is joined by a cast that includes Bill Pullman (as Halston’s business associate David Mahoney), Krysta Rodriguez (as Minnelli), Rebecca Dayan (as Elsa Peretti, another close Halston friend), Gian Franco Rodriguez (as Halston’s sometime lover, Victor Hugo), David Pittu (as Halston illustrator and creative director Joe Eula), Rory Culkin (as Joel Schumacher), Kelly Bishop, Sullivan Jones, and Vera Farmiga – and as even a quick look at the publicity shots of each of them in full costume for their roles is enough to verify that the series has gone out of its way to meticulously recreate the look and feel of Halston’s glamorous world.

The series found its way to the screen thanks to Minahan’s interest in “Simply Halston,” a bio penned by Vanity Fair writer Stephen Gaines. Working with producer Christine Vachon, he began work on adapting the book as a feature-length film, but the scope of the story made honing it into a two-hour-ish running time a daunting task, and the idea was shelved. The option on the book then passed through a series of other hands, but when the rights became available again, Vachon approached Minahan with the idea of revisiting the project as a mini-series, and, as Minagan says, “it just clicked.” It wasn’t long until Ryan Murphy reached out (through Alexis Martin Woodall, president of his production company) to express his interest, and things “started moving very quickly.”

“Working with Ryan is a unique experience,” says Minahan, who previously worked with the powerhouse producer on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” “He draws the best out of people, and he demands excellence from everyone who works with him. He has an uncanny sense for story, and I’ve been fascinated for years by the tone he’s able to strike in his work and the depth of emotion that he’s able to express.

He also says Murphy had “a unique relationship” with the material that helped inform the end product. “[He] grew up in Indiana […] then he worked building an empire as a gay man in a corporate world as Halston did, so he was really generous with his experience. A lot of that made it into our scripts. We were very lucky to have him be involved.”

As for McGregor, Minahan says that although he had considered a whole list of actors for the starring role, the “one and only meeting” he had was with the popular and prolific Scots actor. Though McGregor identifies as straight, he has long been an LGBTQ ally, with a history of sensitive and insightful performances in gay roles (most notably the fictionalized amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed he portrayed in Todd Haynes’ glam-era fantasy, “Velvet Goldmine”), and according to Minahan, his work as Halston is nothing short of immersive.

“Watching Ewan transform into Halston was fascinating,” he says. “When he arrived in New York, he asked for a room where he could work undisturbed with some props — True cigarettes, which are the same brand Halston smoked, cigarette holders, Flair pens like Halston used, scissors, fabric, a black turtleneck, a tape measure, and some yellow lined notepads.” The actor also worked with costume designer Jeriana San Juan, acquiring a detailed familiarity with the technical minutiae involved with designing and assembling clothes – even going so far, according to San Juan, as studying her eye movements while she worked “so he could better track his eyeline when he’s designing as Halston in the show.”

Of course, it’s one thing to capture the physical reality of a true-life character, and quite another to infuse that character with an inner life that honors their experience. From the fabulous ferocity he displays in the show’s trailer, the versatile star of movies as wide-ranging as “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge,” and the middle “Star Wars” trilogy looks to have delivered a career-topping performance – and if there’s any doubt whether he can convey the authenticity required to illuminate the drive that took Halston to the pinnacle of the fashion world when it was still run by a conservative and closed-minded “boys’ club,” his delivery of the line, “I’ve been an outsider my entire life, till one day I just stopped giving a flying fuck,” should put it to rest.

With what could become one of the season’s most acclaimed performances at the center, and its sumptuous depiction of an iconic era through San Juan’s costumes and the world-building of production designer Mark Ricker, “Halston” looks to be a benchmark for “prestige” TV in 2021.

In any case, thanks to the enduring fascination its subject and his legacy still hold for millions of fans and admirers, queer and straight alike, it’s sure to be at the top of a lot of “must watch” lists when it debuts on May 14.

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Television

Watch ‘Feud,’ if you like glam and wit doused with betrayal and regret

New series focuses on Truman Capote and NYC socialites

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‘Feud’ features NYC socialites known as the ‘swans’ and airs on F/X and Hulu through March 13. (Photo courtesy of FX)

Nothing is more of a pick-me-up in the doldrums of winter than a fabulously acted, incredibly stylish feud. Complete with Champagne flutes and a splendiferous mid-century ball at New York City’s Plaza Hotel. Especially, when it’s part of the ouevre of queer TV producer and creator Ryan Murphy, whose beloved shows include  “American Horror Story,” “Glee” and the anthology series “Feud.”

Season 2 of Feud, “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,” which premiered on Jan. 31, will air weekly on FX through March 13. Episodes stream the next day on Hulu.

“Feud’s” powerhouse cast, which delivers stellar performances, includes: Tom Hollander as Truman Capote along with Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloe Sevigny and Calista Flockhart as Capote’s swans.

Demi Moore plays Ann Woodward, a socialite who Capote falsely said intended to murder her husband. Molly Ringwald portrays Joanne Carson who befriended Capote when nearly no one  would take him in. The role of CBS chairman Bill Paley fits the late Treat Williams like a glove.

Hollander makes Capote seem like a brilliant, flawed, cruel, sometimes kind, human being, rather than a “fairy” caricature. 

Jessica Lang does a star turn as the ghost of Capote’s mother. Gus Van Sant directs most of the episodes of “Feud.”

“Feud” is based on Laurence Leamer’s book  “Capote’s Women.” Playwright and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz adapted Leamer’s book into the miniseries “Feud.”

“Feud” is the story of how acclaimed queer author Capote, after becoming their best friend betrayed his “swans.”

“The swans,” were the rich, beautiful, New York society women who confided their secrets (from their insecurities about their looks to their husbands’ infidelities) to Capote. 

These “swans,” who took Capote into their inner circle, were: Babe Paley (wife of CBS chairman Bill Paley), Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister), socialite Slim Keith (ex-wife of Howard Hawks and Leland Hayward) and socialite C.Z. Guest.

“You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say,” Capote, once said.

His swans didn’t agree with Capote’s dictum.

Capote’s betrayal of the swans occurred in 1975. That year, “Esquire” published “La Cote Basque, 1965,” a chapter from Capote’s much anticipated novel “Answered Prayers.”

(Capote never completed the novel. An unfinished version was published after his death.)

The “Esquire” story, set in the restaurant where Capote often lunched with his “swans,” hurt and infuriated “the ladies who lunched.” The details revealed in the “Esquire” story were so personal and thinly veiled that the “swans” felt readers would easily identify them.

“Feud” depicts the bonds of friendship that frequently exist between hetero women and queer men. Capote gave his “swans” the love and attention their spouses failed to provide. Babe Paley called Capote her “second husband.”

For Capote, an outsider because he was gay, “the swans” provided acceptance, association with high society (which he both loved and despised) and material for his writing.

Capote became estranged from the “swans” right after the “Esquire” story was published.

“Feud” goes back and forth in time. At first, this is a bit disconcerting. But, soon, it keeps things moving, and provides fascinating glimpses into Capote and the “swans.”

Bill and Babe Paley think Capote is the “other Truman” (Harry Truman) when they meet him in the 1950s.

In the 1970s, after the “swans” have shunned him, Capote is a washed-up, alcoholic, drug-addicted has-been. (Capote died in 1984 at age 59 of liver disease.)

The third episode is the stand-out of “Feud.” In 1966, Capote was at the height of his power after “In Cold Blood, his “non-fiction” novel, had been published to much acclaim and commercial success. To celebrate, Capote threw a Black and White masquerade ball. The ball, to which Capote invited 540 guests, was the most famous party of the 20th century. Katherine Graham of The Washington Post was the guest of honor.

The episode is shot as a (fictional) documentary of the ball. Shot in black and white, it’s visually stunning. We see interviews with some of the “swans,” who are ticked off, but trying not to show it, because Capote had led them to believe they would be the guest of honor.

Watch “Feud,” if you like glam, hats, white gloves, cocktails and wit doused with betrayal and regret.

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Rough and sexy ‘Open To It’ explores lighter side of polyamory

Take a break from prestige cinema and enjoy this new TV series

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Tim Wardell and Frank Arthur Smith explore polyamory. (Photo courtesy of OutTV)

With Hollywood’s big awards season launching into full swing, January tends to be a month all about the movies – especially for people whose job it is to see them all and write about them. It’s a pleasure, of course, if you love cinema; but let’s face it, most of the award-hopeful films getting the spotlight as the new year turns tend to be pretty serious stuff. Everybody needs a break from that, once in a while.

That’s why we’re happy to take a brief pause from the whirlwind of “prestige cinema” to take a look at something that doesn’t feel quite so heavy, and the fact that it’s available in small doses on your screen-of-choice at home – via queer streaming service OutTV – makes it even more appealing. Oh, and it’s also sexy, which doesn’t hurt.

Cut from a similar cloth as some of the edgier “wacky sitcoms” enjoyed by Gen X-ers and Millennials in their younger years – but with a spicier, more diverse flavor to bridge the three-decade gap in our cultural evolution and infuse things with a more Gen-Z-friendly perspective – and assembled as a long-form narrative told in short (about 10 minutes) installments, “Open To It” is the creation of writer/actor/director Frank Arthur Smith. He stars as Greg, a previously repressed gay man now living the dream in West Hollywood as half of a loving, committed relationship with his partner, Cam (Tim Wardell). Though Cam (a self-proclaimed “former slut”) is happy to have settled into comfortable monogamy, Greg is curious to explore the more free-wheeling sexual lifestyle he denied himself in the past. The solution, of course, is for the couple to experiment with the possibility of opening up their relationship, which is where we meet them as the first episode starts: anxiously awaiting the arrival of Princeton (Jason Caceres), a sexy twink they met on Grindr and invited to join them for their first-ever threesome.

Since we already mentioned the word “wacky,” it’s probably not too hard to guess that things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Instead of a hot, steamy evening of pushing their sexual boundaries, the two experience a farcical disaster that, for most of us, might be considered a worst-case scenario. That, of course, establishes a formula that more or less repeats in each successive episode, as the show’s plucky lead couple determinedly keeps trying to expand into the brave new world of polyamory despite one hilariously awkward sexual debacle after another, complicated even further by the persistent Princeton, who wants more in spite of the less-than-ideal circumstances of their first encounter, and the well-meaning but intrusive couple next door (Elsa Aranda and Reggie Thomas as, respectively, a bisexual wild-child and her prudish lesbian partner), whose efforts to be supportive somehow all seem to have the opposite result. Add to this mix Cam’s overprotective Drag Mother (Laganja Estranja), and you have a recipe for queer comedy of the most chaotic kind.

Beginning its life on the film festival circuit, where the first few episodes made the rounds and became an audience favorite, “Open To It” racked up millions of online views, prompting OutTV to pick it up as a series — and affording Smith and his crew the budget to complete the rest of the season. With that in mind, it’s not a surprise that the opening handful of episodes are a little rough around the edges, though it doesn’t take long before you see the actors gaining confidence and relaxing into a natural rhythm. Even in their clunkiest moments, though, these early chapters manage to convey the blend of over-the-top (and definitely NSFW) absurd humor and cheerfully unfettered sex-positivity the show is going for with its comedy-of-errors storyline, which is enough to make us want more, and watching both the players and the characters they portray develop helps the second half of the season blossom further into itself.

In the show’s press material, Smith says his idea for the series came from his weariness over shows about queer life with “self-sabotaging protagonists” and “a downtrodden tone,” which often tended to take something of a judgmental tone about “polyamorous or otherwise non-monogamous relationships.”

“I wanted to make a sex- and relationship-positive show that normalized gay JOY,” he says. “Sexy swingers, monogamous married couples, people having a ‘50 Shades of Grey’ tie-up night — all are welcome and celebrated in the world of ‘Open To It.’”

Whether or not the series succeeds in “normalizing” anything, it certainly makes a determined effort to depict it. It’s a show about sex, centering on characters exploring their sex lives, and it’s not afraid to take us as far as broadcast standards will allow. That boils down to LOTS of sex scenes, some of them looking almost as if they could be judiciously-cropped excerpts from somebody’s OnlyFans content, which might seem more gratuitous than they are if everything else in the show felt like an excuse to show lots of sex – but, perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t.

While the show (and its main characters, for the most part) may seem fixated on sex, its progression leads inevitably to an exploration not just of the mores and manners of a polyamorous world, but of navigating a relationship through it. And while things may seem drawn in broad, cartoonish strokes in the first episodes which have dropped since the show’s OutTV premiere on January 2, developments as the season progresses turn characters that might seem at first like stereotyped caricatures into more complex, unexpected, and refreshingly open-minded individuals, all learning – or maybe, making up – the rules as they go along.

It’s that willingness to go deeper — all while keeping things light and as near to ridiculous as possible without becoming pure anarchy — that ultimately helps “Open To It” pay off. To be sure, the writing, especially early on, sometimes borders on the clumsy and contrived, more nervous exposition than tone-setting introduction, and the tropes it embraces (more in fun than as reinforcement) about queer “types” and relationships might occasionally be off-putting to viewers looking for a more nuanced approach. Yet in the end, and in surprising ways, the show finds a way forward that promises to expand each of its queer “stock” characters — the repressed gay child acting out sexually as an adult, the too-good-to-be-true sexy-but-smart boyfriend, the tough-loving and “tea”-spilling drag queen, the opposites-attract cliché of the lesbian couple next door — into more fully fleshed-out, complex individuals.

With three more episodes in post-production, and “much more to come,” according to Smith, it appears we’ll have a chance to watch that process continue. And while it may not be the kind of slick-and-polished fare that bigger-budget streaming services use to attract queer viewers, there’s something about its raw-and-unvarnished quality that makes it feel a lot more sincere than most of them — even if it doesn’t make the cut when the next “awards season” rolls around.

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‘Fellow Travelers’ mixes queer love, politics for sexy history lesson

A relationship enduring across the years despite resistance and betrayal

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Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey star in ‘Fellow Travelers.’ (Photo courtesy of Showtime)

In a time when every streaming platform is falling over itself to present the newest “must binge” series, the phrase “Event TV” really has no meaning.

Yet once upon a time – just a few decades ago, in fact, when three major networks and a handful of cable companies highlighted every season with “hot topic of the day” shows from “Roots” to “The Band Played On” – it was something television viewers expected, a standard part of the small-screen line-up that inevitably generated ratings and provided a cultural touchstone (or at least, a good topic of discussion in the break room at work) for millions of people. If that era were still going on today, “Fellow Travelers” would be a perfect fit for the category.

Adapted from Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same name, Showtime’s sweeping eight-episode historical romance, which premiered with its provocative first episode on Oct. 27, checks off all the necessary boxes to pique the zeitgeist of our time. Presenting a fictionalized-but-authentic narrative that weaves real-life history into an intensely intimate love story spanning decades, it touches on issues of hotbed importance to our modern world while spinning an irresistible tale of forbidden romance – tempered by hard reality – that both blends into and epitomizes the lived reality of a generation.  

To cement its status as a show that is not to be missed, it casts gay heartthrobs Matt Bomer (“Magic Mike,” “The Normal Heart,” and any number of Ryan Murphy projects) and Jonathan Bailey (“Bridgerton”) as the star-crossed couple at its center, whose love plays out across a period of queer American political experience that spans from the deeply closeted pre-Stonewall era of 1950s America to the cultural trauma of the AIDS epidemic.

Simultaneously telling both the beginning and the end of its story, “Travelers” moves back and forth through time as it follows the love affair between two gay men – war hero turned government man Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (Bomer) and political idealist Tim Laughlin (Bailey) – through three-and-a-half decades of American history. Juxtaposing the story of their increasingly enmeshed relationship – alongside that of a queer couple of color, a Black journalist (Jelani Alladin) and a gender-bending nightclub performer (Noah J. Ricketts) – with the years-later saga of their reconnection after a devastating betrayal has torn them apart, its dominant throughline is tied to the underreported (though irrefutably documented) history of homophobic discrimination by the U.S. government that began with the McCarthy “Red Scare” era purge of known-or-suspected homosexuals employed within government service. Perpetrated under excuse of the presumed security risk associated with anyone participating in a “deviant” lifestyle, it was a targeted propoganda campaign that would eventually culminate in the debacle of the nation’s indifference to AIDS and the rising death toll that was taking place in plain sight.

It’s not the first show to tackle this subject matter; America’s response to AIDS, and the deeply ingrained cultural homophobia that laid unabashedly behind it, has been explored so much that it has become almost a thematic trope. As to the topic of queer life in an environment where “passing” as straight is purely a matter of survival, it’s a subject as relevant to queer existence in much of the world today as it has ever been, which we’ve rightly seen reiterated time and again. But given the current push in American politics to erode the hard-won advancements of the LGBTQ community toward acceptance and equality, it’s hard to complain about a show that wants to explore it on our screens yet again.

Even so, it’s also hard not to go into “Fellow Travelers” without noting the common ground it shares with other dramatic narratives covering the same ground – especially, perhaps, playwright Tony Kushner’s seminal and now-iconic Pulitzer-winning “Angels in America,” with which it invites comparison by virtue of its inclusion of real-life poster boy for internalized homophobia Roy Cohn (played here by Will Brill) and its focus on closeted characters working within the U.S. political establishment – and wondering if it will have anything new or noteworthy to say.

Based solely on its first episode, you might be prodded toward even more skepticism; establishing itself with a broad strokes and a glossy tone, it feels a bit like an old-school tearjerker, evoking the Douglas Sirk-ish social melodramas of its (predominantly) vintage setting even as it moves from past to future and back again. It’s stylish, even lovely, but seems built on a distancing artifice. And its romantic leads, the characters to which we are supposed to attach ourselves, might be hard to swallow – for some viewers, at least – simply because they are gay men seemingly content to live their real lives under cover while working for a governmental system that facilitates their oppression. To put it simply, it all feels a little too “Hollywood.”

Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the show draws us in. Though at first we might think it tends toward the shallow, drawing on familiar formulas and offering up two thinly drawn protagonists in hopes we’ll accept them simply because they are played by a pair of impossibly handsome leading men, the ideas it presents are important and the history it documents illuminates a past that has remained obscured for far too long, so we’re willing to jump on board. Besides, those leading men are not only very handsome, they have a winning chemistry together, and the authenticity of the casting pays off by delivering a queer screen couple that feels genuine – and that’s not just because of their unapologetically sexy love scenes. Even if their story doesn’t quite make sense to us yet, we want to see more of them.

That’s a very good thing, because as the series moves along, the tone changes drastically. Though the world of episode one is full of blithe denial and resignation to a status quo that might make our hindsight bristle, it’s a world that quickly changes as things progress, a point driven home by the show’s time-jumping framework. The oppression gets worse, the danger gets real, and the effect those things have on the lives of these two men – one a seemingly amoral pragmatist who has accepted and embraced a closeted life as a condition for success and the other a passionate “true believer” naïve enough to fall under the spell of a right-wing political ideology – has an impact. They change, they make choices and suffer consequences; in other words, they deepen, and as they do, the show does too.

That’s because show creator Ron Nyswaner, despite making some changes from the novel, understood the throughline at its core and held tight to it in building the series. Ultimately, “Fellow Travelers” is not a story about politics, or social causes, or any of the other weighty issues that shape its trajectory. It’s a story about love, enduring across the years despite resistance, opposition, and betrayal; whether it ends happily or not – and you won’t get any spoilers here – it is lived passionately. Because of that, we care, and because we care, those big ideas land even more soundly.

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