‘The Lady and the Dale’: TV Review – Hollywood Reporter

Posted: January 27, 2021 at 5:09 pm

6:45 AM PST 1/27/2021byInkoo Kang

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 Americas 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 HBOs The Lady and the Dale, directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker (a consultant and cast member on Transparent) do right by their subjects multitudes, presenting a rollicking and twist-filled bio-doc in four parts that doesnt shy from Carmichaels many flaws while supplying ample context for the transgender experience a half-century ago. TVs longform documentaries are seldom so illuminating, or entertaining.

Cammilleri and Drucker smartly eschew re-enactments for animation in telling Carmichaels life story a visually charming choice that underscores both the profound mutability and itinerant weightlessness of her familys 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 childrens records falsified and their schooling sacrificed to Carmichaels quasi-fugitive status.

The Lady and the Dale is the rare biographical doc in which the subjects domestic self is as interesting as their professional feats. Thats partly due to the series' star interviewee: Candi Michael, one of Carmichaels daughters, who refers to her parent as both my father and Liz. (Two of Carmichaels children participate in the doc, as does Vivians younger brother Charles Barrett, who does his best to provide his deceased sisters perspective on her wife.) The children, who appear to have been the people who accepted Carmichaels womanhood most readily, had a front-row seat to her transition. If theres one point where Cammilleri and Drucker falter, its in not furnishing a fuller account of the ways Carmichaels 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 companys proprietary bulletproof, unbreakable plastic (which didnt exist) and telling reporters, I dont want to sound like an egomaniac, but Im a genius.

At six-foot-two and some 200 pounds, Carmichael, who didnt begin transitioning until her forties, couldnt 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 mens prisons.

But the institution that arguably had the most catastrophic effect on Carmichaels life, especially during her later years, was journalism. Reporters were right to expose Carmichaels lies about The Dale, but a kind of tabloid journalism indistinguishable from entertainment would plague the entrepreneurs later years, when she finally seemed to be embracing stability and even helping down-and-out men by offering them jobs. Its 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. Its to The Lady and the Dales considerable credit that the doc underscores, rather than streamlines, the warts-and-all complexities of Carmichaels 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

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'The Lady and the Dale': TV Review - Hollywood Reporter

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