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A Device to Remember: Halston

Halston - Still 1

By Dana Weidman.

Halston, the new documentary from director Frédéric Tcheng (Dior and I) starts with a credit stating that the “following film is documentary. However, the narrator is a fictional character.” In the opening, Tcheng uses news clips to build a brief history of the iconic dress designer’s rise to the very summit of fashion industry, designing dresses for Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Cybill Shepherd, and Liza Minnelli, then his fall through a billion-dollar deal with JC Penney.

The fictional character is an investigator, digging through the archives to understand Halston’s demise, and introducing a mystery involving the erasure of VHS videotapes. This gimmick sets up suspense in what is primarily a traditional documentary film.

Roy Halston Frowick was born in Des Moines, IA and learned to sew from his grandmother. He made his way to New York and eventually became head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman. He gained global fame when he designed the pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy wore for her husband’s 1961 Presidential Inauguration. He opened a boutique on Madison Avenue and began designing dresses in 1968. The film addresses his homosexuality and the homophobia of the 60s and 70s, and his rise to fame and development of the Halston brand.

Tcheng interviews the surviving members of Halston’s entourage, models, clients, and friends, including socialite/model/actress Marisa Berenson and many of the Halstonettes. Halston’s racially and ethnically diverse models, called The Halstonettes, included Karen Bjornsen, Alva Chinn, and Pat Cleveland who are featured in the documentary. Anjelica Huston began her career as a Halstonette. Now in their seventies, they may be wizened but still glamorous and their memories of their youthful beauty and stardom are lighthearted. Tcheng cuts to archival photos to present these great beauties in their youth, in an era of leisure, indulgence, and sensuality at spots like Studio 54 and Andy Warhol’s Factory. The journey into this glamorous past is a pleasure and Tcheng’s access to these former superstars is impressive. The “investigator” and fictional narrator of the documentary seems to disappear, but the gimmick is an effective tool at building a mystery and keeping the viewer engaged.

Joel Schumacher gives a candid, in-depth interview. He helped launch Halston Limited, Halston’s pret-a-porter line, in 1969. Halston worked with cashmere, ultrasuede, and other new synthetic fabrics coming onto the market in the 1970s. His designs draped women in monochromatic fabric that was loose and relaxed for the era of disco and late-night parties.

Schumacher went to Hollywood as a costume designer (working on Woody Allen’s Sleeper), then became a screenwriter and director (St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, and Falling Down). (He is a beautiful man at 79, but when Tcheng cuts to photographs of the young Schumacher with Halston, he was stunning.) Halston is remembered for his designs that enhanced and showcased female beauty and glamour, but he was also a glamorous and beautiful man who was painted by Andy Warhol.

The investigator character and the videotape story provide a theme in the credits and in transitions from archival footage. This old video look is used in stark contrast to the sumptuous interviews with Halston’s elite friends and former colleagues. Halston died March 26th, 1990 at age 57 of AIDS.

Dana Weidman has an MFA in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute Conservatory in LA and a BA in English from Grinnell College. She’s a Professor of Film and Media Arts at Dutchess Community College.

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