Film Review “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston”

Directed by Whitney Smith
Starring Halston, Patricia Altschul and Phillip Bloch
Tribeca Films
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 89 minutes

Our Score: 2 out of 5 stars

‘In Search of Halston’ turns out to be an apt subtitle for Whitney Smith’s muddled documentary following the rise and fall of iconic American  designer Halston. There is an exciting life story here to be sure but it is unfortunately bogged down by a filmmaker intent on romanticizing the excesses of the nineteen seventies and clumsily inserting himself into the proceedings to no meaningful end.

Halston, (born in Iowa, Roy Halston Frowick) came to fame in 1961 when he designed Jackie O’s famous pillbox hat for JFK’s inauguration. Moving onto women’s wear, he dressed such icons as Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minelli, who won her Academy Award for Caberet in a Halston gown. Eventually Halston successfully branched out into all sorts of markets from carpeting to perfumes. However the licensing of his name to ‘down market’ corporations such as JC Penney and Playtex contributed to his professional downfall in the eighties, while excesses of the era lead to his untimely death from AIDs-related cancer in 1990.

Where Smith comes into this is irrelevant really and yet the director sets up the film with an interview from his own mother to assure the audience that Smith really liked seventies fashion because he was so fond of Smokey and the Bandit. This has zero to do with Halston and everything to do with Smith rolling up to an interview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a vintage Pontiac Trans Am (this car gets entirely too much screen time), aviators, and a tacky porn ‘stache. Dressed like this, Smith appears in every single featured interview.

The interviewees themselves are an impressive lineup, among them Liza Minelli, Angelica Huston and Vogue’s André Leon Talley, but the director frames their exchanges awkwardly. Why include Talley rightly scolding Smith for his cell phone going off during their talk? Or designer Ralph Pucci demanding Excedrin? Why include Billy Joel at all when seemingly his only relation to Halston is one lyric in “Big Shot”? Questions like these distract from the genuinely interesting anecdotes that do come forward when the subjects are left to speak for themselves. Likewise the footage of Halston’s work show just how timeless and elegant his designs were. They would still be stunning on today’s catwalks, a point which Smith doesn’t particularly explore while loitering around Bryant Park’s Fashion Week because that’s where “dudes like [him] go to check out models.”

Perhaps most frustrating of all is the lack of the designer himself. For all the stories his colleagues provide, we barely get a glimpse at the real Halston. In video clips he appears in archival television footage to disperse maxims such as “You’re only as good as the people you dress.” We don’t go beneath the surface of his glamorous lifestyle and in fact Smith veers into an entire portion of the film devoted to just how wild it got in Studio 54. If Smith had just listened to Liza Minelli’s advice to “find out the solid stuff, f*ck the gossip”, we may have had a more interesting film.”

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