With “The Lady and the Dale,” a four-part documentary beginning Sunday, HBO has itself an I-can’t-believe-I-haven’t-heard-of-this story in the “Tiger King” or “McMillions” category. The most newsworthy events in the astonishing life of Elizabeth Carmichael — serial con artist, fugitive from the law and, for a brief moment, celebrated automotive entrepreneur — took place just long enough ago and just far enough under the pre-internet national radar that they’re fresh for the telling.
And the film’s directors, Zackary Drucker (a producer on “Transparent” and “This Is Me”) and Nick Cammilleri, have packaged a complex and contradiction-laden tale adroitly and with remarkable legibility. The assurance with which they tell it matches the boldness with which Carmichael printed counterfeit money or created a company to make and market the Dale, a three-wheeled car with a motorcycle engine that was either an utter fraud or a promising, prematurely abandoned innovation. Or her boldest stroke: transitioning and living a highly public life as a woman beginning in the 1970s, when such a choice was virtually unheard-of.
Carmichael’s story, as you might guess from those details, is as tricky to tell as it is absorbing. She was a career criminal and also a pioneer in the public acknowledgment (if not acceptance) of transgender people. In her younger life, as Jerry Dean Michael, she left a trail of deserted wives and abandoned children. But beginning in her 40s, she held together a large and apparently devoted family while making her transition and often running from the law.
Cammilleri and Drucker play with American archetypes in their portrayal of Carmichael, subtly positioning her as a James Dean-style, mid-20th-century rebel, chafing against postwar pieties and the conventions of her Midwestern upbringing. It’s not always convincing, given the sometimes sordid details of the young Jerry Michael’s exploits, and it can register as a shifty way of setting up the notion of Carmichael as a transgender heroine later in life. But the series doesn’t appear to be hiding any of the facts from us; if anything, the early episodes have a tabloid-style avidity.
That mythologizing tone works in concert with a prudent storytelling strategy. The first two hours are a fast-paced, straightforward account of Carmichael’s life up to and including her founding of the short-lived Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, maker of the Dale. (Its selling point, in the midst of the 1970s oil crisis, was the promise of 70 miles per gallon.) This is essentially a true-crime story, and the question of gender identity, while inescapable, isn’t predominant.
At that point you’re hooked, and the final two episodes slow down and pull back for a broader look at how gender issues and the prurience of the times played into Carmichael’s outing as the former Jerry Michael and her prosecution for fraud over the never-manufactured Dale. Here “The Lady and the Dale” gives more screen time to scholars and legal experts, and opens up a secondary line of inquiry into the news media’s significant role in the travails of Carmichael, who died in 2004 after serving time for conspiracy and fraud.
Carmichael’s story will be polarizing; some portion of the audience will see her as nothing more than an opportunistic thief and narcissist whose transition was a ploy to evade law enforcement, and will scoff at any suggestion that she be celebrated. This point of view is represented most strongly in the documentary by the television reporter Dick Carlson, whose unrelenting investigation of the Dale precipitated Carmichael’s downfall; one of the story’s many savory details is that he is the father of the disputatious Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
“The Lady and the Dale” doesn’t have a direct narrative voice, but it’s clear enough that Dick Carlson is on the wrong side of history where the series is concerned, along with a few other journalists and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. The series’s most immediately noticeable feature is its use of cutout, collage-style animations, which largely take the place of the usual archival films and photos. They provide visual variety and energy, but their nonspecific, comic-book quality also gives the filmmakers a stronger hand in shaping our emotional responses to the story they’re telling.
But perhaps those choices were less a tactic to direct our sympathies than a tacit admission that the story of Liz Carmichael holds emotional depths and barbed questions that they weren’t equipped or willing to deal with head-on. The two central interviews in the series — with Candi Michael, Carmichael’s daughter, and Charles Richard Barrett, her brother-in-law — are marked by a wistful loyalty that seems to float on an ocean of barely expressed anguish and regret. Inside the smooth fascination of “The Lady and the Dale” is a tragedy that hasn’t fully emerged.