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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Dream Deferred

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne 
Documentary film by Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond  

What happens to a dream deferred? asked the poet Langston Hughes.  Ask Doris Payne.

When Payne was a little girl, in the coal country of West Virginia, she wanted to be a ballerina, but someone told her she couldn’t, because “they don’t have black ballerinas.”  All right, she says she thought, if I can’t be what I want to be, I will be something else.

So instead of a dancer or an actress, which this strikingly beautiful, poised and intelligent girl surely could have been, she became an impersonator of beautiful, poised, intelligent women, and used her talent to steal millions of dollars worth of jewelry from high-end shops all over the world.   Her greatest heist was at Cartier’s in Monte Carlo, where she pretended to be the wife of Otto Preminger, and made off with a diamond worth a million dollars.  She then sewed it into her girdle as she escaped from custody in Monaco, flew back to the U-S and fenced it on 47th Street in New York, for $148,000. 

Ms. Payne, now an octogenarian, multiple repeat offender, tells her story in this alternately charming and chilling documentary.  She repeatedly breaks into laughter while telling of her thefts and her jailbreaks – confessing that part of her motive was surely to punish and poke fun at the society that put her on the margins.   

In the end, though, it’s not a funny story.  At 83, we see Payne arrested yet again, her career failing largely because of new surveillance technology that makes it so much harder for jewel thieves to go undetected.  She seems resigned to a life bouncing in and out of prison and halfway houses, always plotting, always lying, usually broke and homeless. 

An overheated witness at her trial describes her as a psychopath, but she’s clearly not.  To her best friend she’s an honest woman, to her children a loving mother, and to the viewer, a sympathetic character.  She makes her way by ripping off a well-insured business that makes its own way by exploiting poor miners, and ripping off wealthy consumers.   Asked why she hasn't apologized for her crimes, she says no one has showed up to apologize to.  How about the saleslady who called her a psychopath?  Well, it wasn't her jewelry.  She was just the saleslady, says Payne.  

Film review:  this is not a great documentary.  Doris Payne seems much smarter than the film-makers, whom she uses and manipulates as she would anyone else.   Still, they let her tell her own story in her own words, and it's a gem.      

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips