Elizabeth Carmichael was an auto-industry pioneer and a criminal; a loving mother and a deadbeat parent; a savvy entrepreneur and a con artist. Those contradictory yet accurate descriptions only scratch the thinnest surface of this multifaceted human being who is the subject of The Lady and the Dale, a fascinating four-part HBO docuseries, premiering Sunday, January 31, that tells her story with honesty, humor, and admirable sensitivity.
Carmichael is most famous for launching and promoting the Dale, a three-wheel car first designed by its namesake, Dale Clifft, as a prototype, then reimagined and marketed in the early 1970s through Carmichael’s Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation. With its bright yellow paint job and unusual oblong shape, the Dale bore a striking, ironic resemblance to a lemon. But the canny Carmichael, who swore that her vehicle would be the envy of Ford and General Motors, sold it as a forward-thinking, ultrasafe, and extremely fuel-efficient solution to the nation’s then-urgent gas crisis. And she did it as the rare female car-company executive in an industry dominated by men. The only problem was, she wasn’t telling the truth about a lot of that information.
The Lady and the Dale — co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and trans artist Zackary Drucker, a producer on Transparent — focuses on Carmichael’s unethical and fraudulent business practices that led to the Dale’s demise. But it’s just as interested in the obstacles Carmichael faced as a transgender woman and how that affected the way she was perceived and treated by the media, the legal system, and the public.
One of the most notable things about The Lady and the Dale is its ability to reckon with the illegal, unethical behavior Carmichael engaged in while simultaneously chronicling her journey as a member of the trans community with respect. All the sources who appear on-camera are blunt about her lapses in judgment, but many of them also express admiration for her, particularly with regard to her unapologetic assertion of her womanhood. “I think you’ve gotta be pretty brave to do something like that,” says Gerry Banks, a Dallas assistant district attorney, about Carmichael’s decision to transition. He’s also one of the people responsible for charging her with grand theft when she relocated Twentieth Century Motors from L.A. to Dallas. Yes, this woman, like this series, contains multitudes.
A lesser documentary might have taken a more sensationalized approach to recounting the many WTF moments in Carmichael’s roller coaster of a life, but Cammilleri and Drucker travel a more understated route, confident that the wildness in each chapter will speak for itself. It does. The first episode, which debuts Sunday night, followed immediately by the second, focuses on Carmichael’s pre-Dale experiences, when she still identified as a man born under the name Jerry-Dean Michael.
Even back then, Carmichael was prone to telling whoppers and engaging in criminal levels of deceit. She adopted more than one identity, married two different women, and had children with them that she quickly abandoned. Eventually she met a woman named Vivian Barrett, married her, had five children, and created a life that required them to constantly move in order to stay a few steps ahead of the law, who had her on their radar for, among other things, printing counterfeit money. Early on, particularly during a section in which Liz’s brother-in-law, Charles Richard Barrett, fondly recalls learning how to forge checks from her, the series has a bit of a Catch Me If You Can vibe. But by the second episode, the Dale, and all the notoriety and headaches it brings, enters the picture.
The Lady and the Dale relies on candid interviews with people who worked with Carmichael, experts on trans issues, journalists, and relatives, with Barrett and Carmichael’s daughter, Candi Michael, carrying the heaviest explanatory load in the family. Cammilleri and Drucker utilize some archival footage from news coverage, but with only so much of that available, they rely heavily on animated sequences that place photos of Carmichael and other figures into graphically rendered re-creations of events. Some of those sequences, albeit much more sophisticated, are vaguely reminiscent of a JibJab video. Given their access to audio of interviews with Carmichael, using animation as a work-around makes sense. It’s also a bit distracting, but after a while, especially because this story is so engrossing, one gets accustomed to that aesthetic.
The series, produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, who also produced the true-crime doc Wild Wild Country, can be so surprisingly moving at times. The degree to which people in Carmichael’s circle supported her during and after her transition is remarkable, especially since they were showing that support during a time when trans issues were not just misunderstood, but often dismissed entirely. Television coverage of Carmichael’s capture and trial, when her trans status was first publicly revealed, provide concrete evidence of that. “Carmichael is actually a man,” states one reporter, insensitively and wrongly, during a newscast. Dick Carlson, who worked at an ABC affiliate in California and aggressively covered Carmichael and her Dale-related transgressions, still contends to this day that she “posed as a woman” in order to disguise herself and “garner publicity.” The fourth episode reveals that Carlson made it his job to out another high-profile trans woman, tennis player Renée Richards, raising the question of whether prejudice was driving him more than journalism. “How do you combat the media’s narrative that you aren’t a woman?” asks gender and media theorist Sandy Stone. “The answer is, you don’t.”
Some questions do linger after The Lady and the Dale is over. While Liz and Vivian seemingly had a happy marriage for a long while — Vivian even worked as the receptionist at Twentieth Century Motors — Vivian eventually breaks off from the rest of the family. When the series reveals that she died of cancer in the 1980s after remarrying, only one of the Carmichael descendants speaks about it, which is odd considering how much time Candi spends onscreen, offering her perspective on other things. (Her memories of a childhood with little consistency and structure are surprisingly fond.) But even though a few angles aren’t fully pursued, The Lady and the Dale distinguishes itself as the rare true-crime documentary that asks us to consider both why some people opt to live a life rooted in one long con after another, and why society has historically been so willing to view being transgender as a form of deceit. In the case of Liz Carmichael, announcing her womanhood is probably the most honest thing she ever did.