HBO’s The Lady and the Dale is Nick Cammilleri’s baby. When he became familiar with Liz’s story, he kept trying to grasp onto her as much as he could, but Liz kept disappearing like mist between his fingers. The Lady and the Dale is both a caper and a human rights story–it’s historical but feels stranger than fiction. Working with his co-director, Zackary Drucker, Cammilleri paints the portrait of a woman who lived a life by her own rules.
Cammillieri first heard of Liz Carmichael when Unsolved Mysteries ran a segment about her in 1989. She was caught two weeks later, but he couldn’t get her out of his head.
“I’ve always been drawn to weird subcultures. We had this entrepreneurial, serial con artist and The Dale thing became a central question for me. I didn’t know a lot and the more I dug, I didn’t find any real answers. She had this criminal life before and after but The Dale was the litmus test. If The Dale was real, it was remarkable, and if it wasn’t I was being duped like everyone else. I remember thinking that the answer to that question was the most important thing. The more I discovered, the deeper I dove. I always used to get bored so easily but then it just kept getting crazier and crazier.”
So much texture is provided in the animation incorporated into The Lady and the Dale that it feels like you are witnessing something being created before your very eyes. It informs so much for the audience when Liz was younger and the images becomes more sophisticated and robust as the series continues. With limited archival footage, Cammilleri and Drucker created such a rich history by including these striking images.
“I do believe that animation is very subjective and our film featured Liz’s world. We wanted it to be inviting. You never want to judge your characters and you just put them out there. It’s meant to be subjective but inviting so you can do it without judgment. The animation style allows you to wonder how you feel about it. Everything you saw in that documentary is what we had. I was working on this documentary for over ten years, and the animation became a way to help us fill in the gaps. It represents what Liz sees in her mind like when she says that every corner will have a Dale on it.”
AD: When I started realizing who Dick Carlson was, I got very angry as a viewer. He would misgender Liz and then say something very offensive. I had a visceral reaction when it’s reveal who his son is. Was that something you ever considered leaving out or did you want to put a face to discrimination of trans people?
Seeing Dick Carlson on screen is a very frustrating and angering experience, but it goes to another level when you realize he’s the father of Tucker Carlson. They are father and son, but both men have a history of making disparaging remarks about transgender people. Cammilleri’s film makes the case that prejudices are learned behavior.
“The conversation that Zackary [Drucker] and I had to a very serious degree was that we think of Renee Richards. Liz Carmichael was really the origin of Dick Carlson’s business model. He won the Peabody for his reporting on Liz and someone came to him the next year and said that he outed Liz and they asked him, ‘Well, this is what you do, right?’ He could’ve said no, and he didn’t. I don’t want to speculate about his motivations, but the fact that he first outed Liz and then Renee and watching this man succeed and promoted is when we realized that there was a damning arc here. You have a direct line between Dick Carlson and Tucker Carlson. They are both succeeding in creating a reactionary audience. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree.”
It’s another case of history repeating itself. It’s not just in events but in attitudes. Visibility is great for underrepresented minorities and identities, but it works the opposite way as well.
“We start with one machination and then end up in another place. Life is just echoing and echoing and echoing. We talked about A Tale of Two Cities and it talks a lot about the past coming back and that happens to hurt Liz and we see how the past motivates Tucker Carlson. We tried to really embody that.”
Since Cammilleri put so much heart and soul (and money) into this incredible tale, I was curious what a white, cisgender man would want to say to such a pioneer like Liz Carmichael. The answer was simple.
“I would say thank you. Her story pulled me from the darkest period of my life, and I am forever grateful to her for that.”
The Lady and The Dale is streaming now on HBO Max.