The life of Liz Carmichael was simultaneously a wild ride and car crash in slow motion. The documentary about her life in the fast lane is worth the trip. The Lady and the Dale (HBO Max) is informative, entertaining and heartbreaking for almost all involved. The title refers to Liz and an oddly-shaped three-wheel car that was supposed to revolutionize the auto industry and solve the energy crisis of the 1970s. And while it does explore the car that seemed too good to be true (because it was), that’s really the least interesting part of the doc.
Hit The Road
Before coming out as a trans woman later in life, Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael was known as Jerry Dean Michael. Suave. Handsome. Fertile. Brazen con artist. Jerry ran romantic and financial scams over two continents. He was convicted of abandonment of a child he never met, and apparently sired others along the way. Jerry Dean eventually married Vivian Barrett, though they never settled down. That’s because he got busted for counterfeiting and skipped town with Viv and their five kids. They spent years on the run, dropping everything on a moment’s notice if they felt police breathing down their necks.
It was somewhere during their never-ending run from the law that Jerry revealed he was trans, and became Liz. Vivian and the kids learned to accept the change (though Viv’s brother admits thinking at first this was just a way to avoid police and the mob), and call her Mother Liz.
Wheeling and Dealing
While that may sound like a crazy, stress filled life, the Carmichael klan hadn’t seen anything yet. Liz was full of get rich quick schemes, and when she saw a custom three-wheeled car that a guy named Dale Cliff had designed to get him around his neighborhood. Liz bought his idea, named it The Dale, and off she went to upend the Detroit boy’s club of Ford, Chrysler, and GM. Liz overhyped and oversold her revolutionary concept car. Engineers couldn’t fulfill her promise of 70 mpg, that it would be bulletproof, or even that it wouldn’t roll over when you tried to turn.
All the hype got the attention of investigative journalists and that is where the wheels start to fall off.
End of the Road
Liz is busted for selling shares of a car she couldn’t deliver and eventually linked to the crimes of her past life as Jerry. Cops finally nab her and here is where we see how the Trans community is treated with indifference at best and open hostility at worst. Liz was forced to stay in men’s jails and prisons. Even during the trial, when the judge demanded she be referred to as female, witnesses would openly defy the order and use male pronouns.
Dick Carlson was one of the investigative reporters for KABC in the seventies and testified at the trial. Interviewed for this show, he bragged about defying the judge on the stand and smugly said he didn’t have to respect Liz continued to demean her. You may be familiar with the aptly named Dick’s son, Tucker.
Though it seemed like an open and shut case, the prosecution had a few problems, and that’s when they would focus on Liz’s status as trans, as if that’s why she was a con artist.
The Lady and the Dale is at its best when it’s exploring and exposing how America treated (and often still treats) its minority citizens. It’s at its most entertaining when we hear from the people who went on this ride with her, including one of Liz’s kids, her brother-in-law, and news footage from the era. The stop-motion paper animation is used as a visual to fill in the gaps, and it brings some levity.
It’s at its most heartbreaking when it shows the abuse Liz had to go through just to be Liz. Being beat up in a men’s jail. Unable to get hormones or surgeries to safely transition. Ridicule from the justice system and journalists who failed in their primary role of guardians of democracy in favor of mocking prejudice. And for her kids, the ones she dragged from place to place all their lives and the ones she abandoned.
The story of the Dale itself is almost secondary. It was never about the car, it was about Carmichael, its biggest cheerleader and scammer.
The car grabs the attention. The story gets seventy miles to the gallon and then some.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I’m having a White Claw Hard Seltzer, because Liz had to claw (and con) her way to the top. Also because someone left a bunch here when we were drinking around the fire pit last week.