The Lady and the Dale, HBO’s new documentary miniseries co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, tells the wild story of a female auto executive who, at the height of the 1970s oil crisis, ended up on trial for fraud after mass-marketing a gas-efficient car that promised 70 miles to the gallon. Opening with footage from a vintage The Price is Right episode, the filmmakers hint that there’s a lot more to this story than just a few white-collar crimes.
The first hour chronicles the early life of Jerry Dean Michael, an Indiana farm boy who eventually became a con artist involved in multiple get-rich-quick schemes, including counterfeiting money. Jerry married a woman named Vivian and had five kids, and the family was constantly on the run – they moved over 20 times in three years while evading authorities. By the end of the first episode, we learn Jerry came out as a trans woman named Elizabeth Carmichael a with plans to open a groundbreaking company called 20th Century Motor Company. By this point, the whole thing comes off like a mix between Unsolved Mysteries (a show that eventually featured Carmichael) and Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can – it’s filled with so much suspense and intrigue, you can’t wait to find out where the story goes next.
The following two episodes trace the rise and fall of the Dale, Carmichael’s three-wheeled car that promised to challenge the gas guzzlers of the disco decade. Sporting a sleek, futuristic design, the Dale was an untested prototype that quickly became a media sensation, and attracted hoards of investors. With Liz at the helm, the company started taking money for orders from an excited public despite not yet having produced a single road-worthy automobile. This caught the attention of local media and law enforcement who started digging deeper into the story, setting the stage for a lengthy securities/fraud trial at which Carmichael represented herself. With constant twists and new revelations, these two middle episodes offer some serious edge-of-your-seat storytelling.
The Lady and the Dale takes careful measures not to conflate Carmichael’s trans identity with her career as a con artist, and her family and friends confirm that the two should always be separated. The filmmakers interview Tucker Carlson’s obnoxious father Dick, a KABC investigative reporter who not only played a huge role in exposing Carmichael’s criminal enterprise and refused to use her correct pronouns, but also famously outed trans tennis player Renée Richards. Meanwhile, historian Susan Stryker and attorney Mia Yamamoto provide important insight into the media’s long history of weaponizing transness, and the ugly manner in which Carmichael’s identity as a trans woman was put on trial alongside her alleged crimes.
As the story plays out, one starts to feel a great amount of sympathy for Carmichael, despite a lifelong career swindling unsuspecting victims. The series paints its subject as a smart and ambitious entrepreneur who truly believed in her product – she was also a dedicated mother who’d do nearly anything to keep her family together. The last episode, however, reveals some of Carmichael’s questionable libertarian-leaning politics that might have allowed her to justify such glaringly dishonest business practices.
The Lady and the Dale uses the usual talking heads/archival footage setup in all four episodes, but what sets it aside from the others is the endlessly creative animation. Sean Donnelly brings Carmichael’s messy and complicated story to life by inserting real photos on top of animated figures, resulting in a fresh visual palate that looks like nothing else out there at the moment. Combine the gorgeous look, candid interviews, and the at-times unbelievable life story told here and you get one of the most compelling queer shows in recent memory.
The Lady and the Dale had a special preview screening last week via NewFest/GLAAD and premieres this Sunday on HBO