The Lady and the Dale, a four-part documentary series from Emmy®-winning producers Mark and Jay Duplass (HBO’s “Room 104”) and directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, traces the audacious story of Elizabeth Carmichael, a larger-than-life entrepreneur who rose to prominence during the 1970s oil crisis with her promotion of a fuel-efficient, three-wheeled car known as The Dale. At a time when three big American automobile manufacturers ruled the road, Liz launched a futurist vehicle that promised to get 70 miles to the gallon.
Her promotional zeal thrust her into fierce public and media scrutiny which uncovered a web of mystery and suspicion about the car’s technology and her own checkered past. The Lady and the Dale is a probing exploration of family and identity seen through the lens of the rise and fall of a fearless and wily innovator, an extraordinarily resilient woman and a dedicated parent. The series debuts on HBO with two back-to-back episodes Sunday, January 31 (9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT), with new episodes airing subsequent Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.
In 1974 in the midst of the Middle East oil crisis, a new, innovative automobile promised America high mileage and a low-price tag; its three-wheeled, slick design is a hopeful harbinger of things to come. Behind the development and promotion of The Dale, was Elizabeth Carmichael, who had previously lived a life of crime, on the run from authorities, and always cooked up preposterous mayhem. She claimed to have smuggled arms to Cuba during the revolution and was wanted by the FBI. With several ex-wives and children in her wake, she eventually wedded soulmate Vivian Barrett. They and their five children lived on the run from the law for many years with Liz starting her transition in 1966. As a woman in the 1970s, with her past kept hidden and a new identity as a widow with a business degree, Liz Carmichael founded the 20th Century Motor Car Company and made a name for herself in the male-dominated business world. A savvy marketer, Carmichael claimed that The Dale would be the biggest thing since the Model T and would challenge Detroit’s iron grip on the auto industry.
The trial that followed was one of the longest in Los Angeles criminal court’s history and became as much about Carmichael’s transgender identity as it was about The Dale. Representing herself in the high-profile case, Carmichael challenged the prejudices of the time, but the surrounding media circus obfuscated the issues; Liz as a person was under interrogation as much as her business practices. The scrutiny into her life would continue for decades, even as she continually found surprising ways to outwit her pursuers, persist in her own survival and keep her family together.
The Lady and the Dale uses an arresting and inventive technique of marrying archival material with photo collages and animation to illustrate Carmichael’s experiences, combining audio recordings with interviews while framing Carmichael’s story within a broader history of trans experiences. Shedding light on Liz Carmichael’s life and on the dogged investigations into her past and gender identity are Candi Michael, Liz’s daughter; Michael Michael, Liz’s son; Jeri Burchard, Liz’s granddaughter; Dick Carlson, local TV reporter; Pete Noyes, KABC news producer; Charles Richard Barrett, Liz’s brother-in-law; and lawyers, prosecutors and employees of 20th Century Motor Car Company. Historian Susan Stryker, Gender and Media Theorist Sandy Stone and criminal defender Mia Yamamoto add historical and legal context to the story.
The Lady and the Dale is a riveting, human portrait of an imperfect trans trailblazer, an industrious businesswoman and a beloved mother whose ambition and unwavering optimism ran headlong into widespread transphobia and media bias. Her life leaves a complicated legacy. Ahead of her time, forced to operate in an unaccommodating world, Liz Carmichael stands as a heroic reminder of the prejudices facing the trans community and as a symbol of untrammeled enterprise and survival.