Does crime pay?
Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond’s documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne makes sure the answer is more complicated than “yes or no.”
Pond thinks “She’s …achieved the American dream in a sense.”
That’s quite an interesting comment from a co-director of a movie about an octogenarian who’s facing what could be for her, a life sentence.
Doris Payne is 81 years old. She’s been a jewel thief since she was a teenager. That’s not an accusation; she actually lists her occupation as “jewel thief” when filling out forms.
In 2011, just before going to prison, she claimed she was not proud of having been a thief for more than fifty years. “I’ve never gloated about stealing. … I never saw anything to gloat about.” She served half of her five year sentence.
The filmmakers met her while she was still in prison and have spent three years making their documentary about “Diamond Doris.” They began filming interviews with her upon her release.
The interviews reveal how not only her victims, but the filmmakers themselves, became seduced by her charm. Had she been born but a few decades later, she could have made it big in Hollywood.
As I’m reflecting on what to write in this review, I keep thinking of O.J. Simpson. I happened to meet O.J. less than a month before his wife and her friend were murdered. I had a job that involved meeting celebrities on a daily basis, and while I wasn’t jaded, O.J. made quite an impression on me. I remembered O.J. at his peak of his fame in the late 1970s, so I wasn’t impressed that I was meeting a professional football player. He had been so much more than that.
We talked for less than ten minutes, and I remember that he made me feel special. He seemed to take a genuine interest in me and looked at me as if I was the only person in the room. He wasn’t hitting on me; I later found out Nicole was with him there that night. Our little chat lifted my spirits the rest of the night. I was excited to be able to tell people I had met O.J., and I HATE football.
After he killed his wife, I understood the significance of our brief encounter: only a sociopath could flatter me so effectively for such a brief period of time.
The filmmakers appear to be as naive as I was. They were intrigued by the story of an elderly jewel thief and thought it would make a good subject for a documentary.
Marcolina had never met a thief before. In an Indiewire interview with Peter Knegt published April 29th of this year he admitted, ” …she’s charming and sweet at the same time…. I think it was a case of mutual seduction, she was seducing us because she had this great story and we were seducing her because we were providing an outlet for her to tell her story….”
Facades are supposed to be beautiful, and Doris presents quite a unique one. She is naturally beautiful: light black skin with a paucity of lines, naturally white hair styled in a straight, chic crop, rimless, tinted Cartier glasses, and a precise measured tone to her speech.
But just like O.J., if you pay attention, you can see cracks that betray that facade, even from the very first scene. The woman who later instructs us that “Bulgari is the Cartier of Italy” is admiring cheap jewelry and tawdry, age-inappropriate outfits as she shops with her childhood friend, Jean Hebert.
As she recounts her life story, she refers to her mentor “Babe Brunfield” as “the only Jewboy to go to the University of Alabama” to illustrate the degree of his intelligence.
Since Europe wasn’t experiencing the kind of urban violence that the civil right movement was igniting in the States, Doris went to Europe.
” …I knew Europeans are real sticklers for proper behavior. The only assessment that a European salesperson is going to make of me is I am properly (sic) in my behavior and am I dressed correctly. That doesn’t mean shit in New York.”
Doris was born in a coal mining camp and had an impoverished upbringing, witnessing domestic violence between her parents was a sad start, but hardly unique to her in the early days of the Great Depression.
Doris wanted to be a ballerina. Somewhere along the way, she was told that she couldn’t be a ballerina because there was no such thing as a black ballerina. Doris chose to believe she couldn’t do what she wanted to do because she was black.
Doris could have made the choice to become the first black ballerina, she could have chosen to be inspired by Josephine Baker who was an international dancing star by the time Doris was born. She could have studied dance -there is no mention in the film that she even took a single class- to learn the craft she claimed to love, and perhaps challenge whoever had acted as if they had the power to choose who became a ballerina and who didn’t.
Certainly, being black meant Doris was going to have to work harder and face unfairness white people wouldn’t. Doris chose the path of least resistance, the path where being black ironically worked to her advantage.
Her anecdotes are entertaining and evoke the carefree, jet-set life of the mid 20th century. She brags about her clever deceptions and escapes. They sound like a movie rather than real life, so it’s not surprising that her life story is going to be a movie. Halle Berry will play Doris. Screenwriter Eunetta Boone recounts many of the details of Doris’ life with lots of admiration and little admonition.
Doris is most famous for, and appears most proud of, the $915,000 diamond she stole from Cartier in Monte Carlo. By luck and her wits, she was able to escape from detention in Monaco and return to New York with the diamond. She boasts as she recounts selling it to a diamond broker for $148,000.
That age hasn’t slowed Doris down is what initially attracted the filmmakers to her. Over the course of the three years of filming, several incidents occurred that upset the filmmakers, but are entirely consistent with who she is.
Doris almost gets away with stealing an Asscher cut diamond ring (the jeweler with 43 years experience said it’s an emerald cut- I wouldn’t go to his store) while being filmed.
She threatens to bring trouble on the directors by telling her parole officer she was filming with them when she wasn’t. This false alibi forces Pond to confront her, a scene that is filmed and displays how Doris can make a lie appear to be true.
Her most serious misstep is getting arrested for stealing a diamond ring from Macy’s. Part of her defense is that because she uses Town & Country magazine as a guide to find which jewelry stores have the best pieces, she would never even go to Macy’s.
Proclaiming her innocence, in this particular instance, she refuses to accept a plea and faces a jury trial. If she’s found guilty, she could be sent to prison for five years, a potential life sentence for a woman her age.
If you plan on seeing the movie, resist the urge to Google to learn the verdict.
When you learn the result, then you can answer the question posed at the top of this review.
Does being the subject of a documentary, having Halle Berry set to portray you in a movie, outwitting authorities on four continents, living among the jet set, enjoying the finest luxuries the world has to offer, reaching your ninth decade as a beautiful woman, and achieving legendary status make your answer “yes” or “no?”
SLIFF Screening: Sunday, November 17th, 3:45pm. Landmark Plaza Frontenac