Review: Trans con artist documentary 'Lady and the Dale' astounds

Documentary series about a groundbreaking grifter is full of surprises

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News
View Comments

In the 1970s, America was throttled by gas shortages. Along came a woman who said she had a solution: A three-wheeled car called the Dale that would get 70 mpg. 

Her name was Liz Carmichael, she started a car company in Los Angeles and, as a then-rare woman entrepreneur, became a sensation. She was going to put GM and Ford out of business. People flocked to pre-order the futuristic-looking canary yellow Dale.

Elizabeth Carmichael is the subject of "The Lady and the Dale."

Except there was no actual, road-ready Dale. Nor was there an actual Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael. 

There was instead a fugitive lifelong con-man named Jerry Dean Michael. Michael had spent much of his adult life on the run with his young family — five kids! — in tow, moving from town to town in short bursts of criminality. At some point he realized he’d prefer living as a woman, so he became Liz and all the kids started calling him mommy.

All this is laid out with gusto in “The Lady and the Dale,” a jaw-dropping too-crazy-to-be-true documentary that seems particularly relevant today. In her own way Liz was a groundbreaking trans person, fearless and forward thinking.

But she was also a brazen crook who piled lies upon lies, never backing down, sure in her own mind that whatever she did was right simply because she did it. Whenever anyone questioned her ethics she cried harassment or witch hunt, even though she was an obvious crook. In another world she might have run for president.

The four-part documentary, which uses photos pasted on animation and interviews with family, foes and friends, is both sympathetic to Liz and somewhat awestruck by the way she charged through life. It, like Liz, is full of surprises, and buys into the very American idea of the celebrated outlaw which, in light of recent events, we may want to rethink.

It leaves some questions hanging and spins on a bit when it comes to trans history, but “The Lady and the Dale”  is undeniably a gas.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

'The Lady and the Dale'

GRADE: B

9 p.m. Sunday

HBO

View Comments