The richly detailed, fast-paced, and riveting new four-part HBO docu-series The Lady and the Dale explores the extraordinary life of transgender businesswoman Elizabeth Carmichael, who in the thick of the 1970s energy crisis promoted a low-cost futuristic looking fuel-efficient three-wheeled automobile, The Dale. On the back of a successful PR blitz with Carmichael at its centre and a prototype of the vehicle displayed at the 1975 Los Angeles Auto Show, and even featured on The Price Is Right, her 20th Century Motor Car Company—the novel Atlas Shrugged by her favourite author Ayn Rand inspired the name—began taking advance payments for a car that would never be completed. Before she began transitioning in 1966, Carmichael had already spent years evading arrest in other states and was wanted by the FBI when she was outed as trans, or in his terms a man masquerading as a woman, by local television news reporter Dick Carlson, leading to her company coming under intense media and legal scrutiny. While Carlson went on to win a Peabody award for his relentless, frequently transphobic coverage of Liz Carmichael, she went on to represent herself in a nine-month long jury trial that became as much about scrutinising her gender identity as it was about the multiple counts of alleged fraud that she and members of firm had been charged with. While trial witnesses including Carlson aggressively misgendered her in court, as he recounts himself in a present day interview for the series, the judge acknowledged that Liz was a trans woman and agreed that she had the right to use her name and to be referred to with female pronouns.
The four hour-long episodes give co-directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker sufficient time to weave an intricate tapestry of Liz Carmichael’s stranger than fiction existence, building a balanced, well-rounded almost Citizen Kane like portrait of this charismatic complex figure that allows one to come away thinking of her as a smalltime grifter turned major con-artist with mob connections, as well as a determined businesswoman, publicity savvy successful entrepreneur, wife, mother, grandmother, and trans trailblazer. Interviews with Liz’s family members, including her daughter Candi, son Michael, and granddaughter Jeri describe her as a loving if unconventional matriarch, with Candi detailing their unsettled childhood routine of having to drop everything and move states at a moment’s notice if the law was catching up with them, an existence that sounds like the plot of Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty. Other present day talking head interviews include several of the engineers who worked on The Dale, Liz’s brother-in-law Charles Richard Barrett, who got caught up in criminal activity with her in his youth, and news producer Pete Noyes who’d worked with Carlson at California’s KABC. At the beginning of the fourth episode Noyes confuses Liz with another transgender woman, professional tennis player Renée Richards, whom Carlson also outed as trans in 1976, leading to a segment that emphasises that in the Carlson family the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, with numerous clips of his son, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s attacks on the existence of trans folks layered with his father’s reporting. This forms part of a larger breathtaking, brilliantly edited sequence that puts Liz Carmichael’s story in its historical context of the treatment of trans people in the media that goes from the 18th century up to last year’s Brooklyn Liberation action for Black Trans Lives.
This final episode makes a fascinating companion to two excellent recent documentaries examining gender identity and media representation, Sam Feder’s Disclosure and Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s No Ordinary Man. Historian Susan Stryker, attached to both of those films, also serves as a consulting producer on The Lady and the Dale and appears on screen to make some astute and fascinating observations, noting that although she might not be an aspirational trans role model, nevertheless she admires Liz’s “grittiness” as “a trans woman who survived for decades.” There are some great contributions too from gender and media theorist Sandy Stone and criminal defender Mia Yamamoto who comments on Liz’s “amazing resilience” and even finds something “heroic” about her. Without excusing her criminal activity, the series acknowledges how Carmichael’s transness heavily impacted how she was viewed and treated by the media and the authorities, including having to suffer being incarcerated in a mens’ prison where she was brutally attacked. One of the elements that injects energy and humour into the series is the inventive use of animation combined with archive photographs, as well as Liz’s voice being recreated in certain sections by Gillian Cameron, in place of more conventional recreations. It all adds up to a compelling, sometimes exhilarating, and poignant ride. Ultimately, whatever your lasting thoughts on Carmichael are you’ll be glad you know her story and might even come away admiring her spirit.
By James Kleinmann
The Lady and the Dale debuts with two back-to-back episodes this Sunday January 31st 9-11pm ET/PT, with new episodes airing subsequent Sundays at 9pm ET/PT. The series will premiere on HBO and be available to stream on HBO Max.