'The Lady and the Dale': TV Review

The Lady and the Dale
Courtesy of HBO
A superb portrait.

Car entrepreneur, lifelong scammer and trans pioneer Elizabeth Carmichael is profiled in a four-part HBO bio-doc produced by the Duplass brothers.

Throughout her long, madcap and utterly singular life, Elizabeth Carmichael boasted a talent for remaking reality. Carmichael had little use for the way things were — not when it came to her body, nor to America’s ailing car industry of the 1970s. Her knack for making the world see things her way led her to pursue a gender transition in the late ‘60s, seemingly with no other trans people around to give support or advice. A decade later, that same force of will led to her highly publicized claim that she would create and mass-produce a three-wheeled, fuel-efficient car that would save the country from the oil crisis — a pipe dream that helped her bilk millions from investors.

A fabulist, an inventor, an Ayn Rand-worshipping libertarian, a queer pioneer and a doting parent of five (and several more children she abandoned or never bothered to meet), the exquisitely complicated Carmichael is, among so many other things, a gift to documentary filmmakers. With HBO’s The Lady and the Dale, directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker (a consultant and cast member on Transparent) do right by their subject’s multitudes, presenting a rollicking and twist-filled bio-doc in four parts that doesn’t shy from Carmichael’s many flaws while supplying ample context for the transgender experience a half-century ago. TV’s longform documentaries are seldom so illuminating, or entertaining.

Cammilleri and Drucker smartly eschew re-enactments for animation in telling Carmichael’s life story — a visually charming choice that underscores both the profound mutability and itinerant weightlessness of her family’s existence. (It also means that The Lady and the Dale refreshingly looks like few other TV docs.) Born in Indiana in 1927, Carmichael roamed from city to city before and after starting a family with her umpteenth but seemingly final wife Vivian, almost always evading arrest for her latest con. The family of seven mostly kept on the move, the children’s records falsified and their schooling sacrificed to Carmichael’s quasi-fugitive status.

The Lady and the Dale is the rare biographical doc in which the subject’s domestic self is as interesting as their “professional” feats. That’s partly due to the series' star interviewee: Candi Michael, one of Carmichael’s daughters, who refers to her parent as both “my father” and “Liz.” (Two of Carmichael’s children participate in the doc, as does Vivian’s younger brother Charles Barrett, who does his best to provide his deceased sister’s perspective on her wife.) The children, who appear to have been the people who accepted Carmichael’s womanhood most readily, had a front-row seat to her transition. If there’s one point where Cammilleri and Drucker falter, it’s in not furnishing a fuller account of the ways Carmichael’s history of fraud and instability affected Vivian and their children, whose forged paperwork gives them trouble to this day with should-be-straightforward tasks like providing identification or applying for a job.

Many trans people throughout the 20th century have tried to cloak themselves in anonymity for fear of being outed. Not Carmichael. In publicity shots for the car she promised to build — a two-seater called The Dale that looks like a cross between a banana and a spaceship — Carmichael appears in long hair and a miniskirt or a Wonder Woman pose. She was a soundbite machine, too, bragging about her company’s proprietary bulletproof, “unbreakable plastic” (which didn’t exist) and telling reporters, “I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac, but I’m a genius.”

At six-foot-two and some 200 pounds, Carmichael, who didn’t begin transitioning until her forties, couldn’t escape suspicions about her gender presentation. Her appearance, combined with her outlandish assertions about The Dale, led journalists to comb through her past and reveal her mile-long rap sheet. (Seemingly every news story declared her, in the sensationalized and uninformed parlance of the day, “really a guy.”) When the R&D funds for The Dale ran out, with no viable prototype to show for it, Carmichael ran into legal trouble, which meant disproportionate shows of force by the police and brutal stays in men’s prisons.

But the institution that arguably had the most catastrophic effect on Carmichael’s life, especially during her later years, was journalism. Reporters were right to expose Carmichael’s lies about The Dale, but a kind of tabloid journalism indistinguishable from entertainment would plague the entrepreneur’s later years, when she finally seemed to be embracing stability and even helping down-and-out men by offering them jobs. It’s a tragic snapshot of the “sideshow” lens trans stories were seen through by the mainstream press at the time — a viewpoint promulgated by journalist Dick Carlson, who outed Carmichael as trans (and won a Peabody for it) and fathered son Tucker, who would later spout his own fear-mongering rhetoric against trans people.

Deception has long been a charge against trans individuals, most often for their attempts at expressing their true selves. Carmichael was accused of being deceitful, too — but in her case, she actually was a lifelong scammer and probable narcissist who perhaps did more harm than good in the world, while also being an undeniable trailblazer. It’s to The Lady and the Dale’s considerable credit that the doc underscores, rather than streamlines, the warts-and-all complexities of Carmichael’s life. It feels like some kind of progress to consider someone as irreducible as Liz Carmichael in her full messy humanity.

Premieres Sunday, Jan. 31, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO