The Duplass Brothers started out originally producing low-budget mumblecore films, before progressing on to some really good comedies such as Safety Not Guaranteed and The Skeleton Twins. Now in what is seemingly like another 180 turn they have produced a four-part bio-doc on trans pioneer Elizabeth Carmichael for HBO. Mind you there are a great deal of hard-to-believe farcical parts of her story that it seems like another of their fictional comedies at times.
Carmichael had a sheer talent for creating confusion and was a first class con artist who could talk her way into anything . When her ideas didn’t work or resulted in being pursued by the authorities, she never hung around to talk herself out of it.
Born in Indiana in 1927 as Jerry Dean Michael who had several wives and even more ‘jobs’ roamed from city to city before starting a family with seemingly final wife Vivian. The family of seven were so used to fleeing in the middle of the night without a moment’s notice. The children’s records was falsified and their schooling sacrificed to help maintain Carmichael’s quasi-fugitive status.
Most of this part of the tale is related with a great sense of pride and glee by Candi Michael one of the (now adult) children. She and her siblings had no problem at all when their father transitioned into Liz their mother whilst they were still very young. Their birth mother who also accepted the changes in their family , and became known as ‘Aunt’
Carmichael, didn’t actually begin transitioning until her forties, but unlike other transwomen in the 1970’s she never made an effort at laying low for fear of being outed. This was no mean task as Liz was six-foot-two and some 200 pounds.
She became quite the public figure and a celebrity when she came across a designer who had created a three wheeler car which Carmichael claimed would totally revolutionize the motor industry. Developing and manufacturing the car Carmichael decided, would be her path to her biggest success, and for a time it seemed like she may be right.
The was the era of frequent gas shortages with long lines of cars at the pumps every day. The idea of a new car that could do 70 miles per gallon excited the general public and at the same time freaked out Detroit motor industry.
The immense amount of publicity she generated also attracted detractors who wanted to prove that car , named The Dale, after its designer, was anything Carmichael claimed it was. The most persistent one was a vindictive local TV reporter Dick Carlson (father of the equally obnoxious of Fox’s Tucker Carlson) who eventually exposed the fact that Carmichael had fraudulently been raising money.
However that wasn’t enough for Carlson and when he discovered the history of Carmichael’s gender, he turned the story instead into a whole nasty transphobic witch hunt. It led to a 9 month criminal trial in which a very well prepared Liz acted as her own Lawyer. She was nevertheless convicted but for fraud but rather than serve any jail time she took yet another overnight flight from justice to freedom.
There is so much more to this long and rather convoluted story and despite all the illegal actions and elaborate cons, we cannot help but really like and admire the very charismatic Carmichael. She had this infectious energy and determination that made her fearless, especially when dealing with men always wanting to put her in her place. Seeing the loyalty she inspired in others, particularly in her children and family, was really remarkable and speaks volumes for her own authenticity.
Carmichael was always elusively one step ahead of the authorities for much of her life which so rattled them. They so wrongfully insisted that her transitioning was done purely to avoid being captured. They were so wrong, but they would ignorantly never accept that.
The quick-witted Carmichael always had a new ‘great idea’ to get rich, or at the very least, feed her family, who were loyal to her to the very end. She so deserves this affectionate and compelling documentary not just for her very colorful and somewhat exotic life, but also for being a pioneering feminist and transwoman. And for reminding us to be not only be true to ourselves but to the very best we can be.
The Lady and The Dale premieres on HBO on 1/31
Labels: 2021, Duplass Brothers, Elizabeth Carmichael, HBO, transwoman