Me Decade

01.18.12

Whitney Sudler-Smith, Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, 2010, color film, 94 minutes. Production still.


A THIN WIKIPEDIA ENTRY with occasionally illuminating talking heads, the scattershot documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston skimps on its subject but tells you more than you ever wanted to know about its director, Whitney Sudler-Smith. A constant irritant, whether as smug narrator or twerpy on-screen presence, Sudler-Smith finds it necessary to include a conversation with his mother about what “in my past inspired me to do this film,” his third. She recalls that he loved the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit and was on a best-dressed list in Washington, DC, in 1989—apparently Sudler-Smith’s only qualifications to chronicle one of America’s greatest fashion designers and the 1970s, Halston’s most prominent decade.

The director, frequently in the frame with his interviewees, often can’t formulate a coherent question or fixates on the banal, asking Phillip Bloch, a stylist and former Studio 54 busboy, “What was the most fucked-up thing you saw there?” Yet despite his complete ineptitude as an interviewer, Sudler-Smith managed to land sit-downs with many in Halston’s inner circle—including Liza Minnelli, who exhorts the filmmaker, “Go do some research. Find out about stuff,” advice that is largely disregarded—and fashion cognoscenti like André Leon Talley, who pleasingly swats the director down when he interrupts his helpful précis of the designer’s career.

Halston’s greatest successes, such as the pillbox hat he designed for Jacqueline Kennedy for her husband’s inauguration in 1961 and the simple shirtwaist dresses made of the titular synthetic material (exemplars of what Talley calls “casual chic”) are given cursory mention, as is his tumultuous relationship with window dresser and debauchee Victor Hugo. In the film’s most embarrassing moment of sociohistorical “research,” Sudler-Smith, seen driving through the streets of Manhattan in a Trans Am, says offscreen, “I wondered if Halston’s minimalist designs were some kind of reaction to the insanity around him. I needed to find out more about the dark side of New York in the ’70s.” And who better to turn to than . . . Billy Joel. The MOR entertainer, captured showing off his motorcycles, and whose only connection to the designer was name-checking him in his 1979 hit “Big Shot” (“And they were all impressed with your Halston dress”), proves even shakier on history than the director: “There was a blackout—I think it was in ’77 . . . ”

Amid such incompetence, Ultrasuede’s greatest asset is the archival material of the couturier himself, his hair slicked back, bedecked in a black turtleneck and white blazer, appearing on Donahue, Good Morning America, and The Love Boat. The era’s great ambassador of queeniness—swish imperiousness tempered by his Des Moines upbringing—once proclaimed, “You’re only as good as the people you dress.” A humble statement by a man with enormous, self-destructive appetites, the sentiment is completely lost on Sudler-Smith. After he asks Minnelli, early in the film, what she sang at the tribute she arranged for Halston after his death in 1990 from complications from AIDS, the performer looks slightly aghast and says, “It wasn’t about me.” Sudler-Smith can’t take the hint.

Melissa Anderson

Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston opens January 20 at the IFC Center in New York.