Who Is Doris Payne?
Author: Eunetta T. Boone
Writer’s Potential: 4
Logline:A chronicle of Doris Payne, who spent her life as a jewel thief.
Synopsis:2005. A WOMAN, obscured from the security cameras monitoring her, steals jewels from a department store. In a Las Vegas hotel room, it turns out the thief is 74-year-old DORIS PAYNE, who watches James Frey on Oprah. Doris goes to steal from a Nieman Marcus, contemplating in voiceover how she got here.
West Virginia, 1943. Doris, 13, plays dress-up with her sister, LOUISE. Their mother, CLEMENTINE, tells them to go to a local store and put money into her account there. Doris notices the shopkeep, MR. BENJAMIN, is distracted with a customer trying on zoot suits. She begs Mr. Benjamin to let her try on a watch, even though she notices the $20 price tag. Mr. Benjamin reluctantly allows her to try it on, then tells her if she wants it, it’ll cost $50. While he’s distracted, Doris steals the watch.
At home, Doris works on a school project. Clementine tries to pull her away to clean, but Doris’s father, DAVID, argues to let Doris keep working. They get into a physical altercation, which prompts Doris’s brothers and sisters to all leap into the fray. In voiceover, Doris explains this is what attracted her to chaos.
Doris is now older. She, Louise, and a few friends go to a sleazy juke joint. Doris attracts GEORGE VADEN, and they go out to Doris’s car. They have a make-out/heavy-petting session with Louise and their friends complaining from the backseat.
1950. Doris and George are married now, with two kids — RONALD, 5, and newborn GLENN. George collects rent at whorehouses. He’s a gambler, a drinker, a smoker, and a horn-dog. When he gets drunk, he tends to lash out at her verbally. At a baby shower for a friend, Doris learns a man named JAMES isrunning a money-order scam out of the back bedroom. After he explains the scam, she asks to get in on it, so she can sock some money away to get herself and the kids away from George. George overhears this.
1952. Doris is in prison for passing bad money orders. In voiceover, she complains that she spent three years in prison, and George refused to bring any of her kids. Clementine brings Ronald on occasion. George is now shacking up with a woman named MARY, who’s helping out with the kids.
1954. Doris is out of prison, living with Clementine and her new husband, RICHARD. She works as a nurse at a retirement home with ADA LURCH, an attractive Jewish girl. Ada invites Doris to the Club Caprece, a club for African-Americans run by white, Jewish HAROLD “BABE” BROMFELD. When Doris and Ada arrive, they find Babe breaking up a fight between DEXY McCOY and another man, over MAVIS JOHNSON, a cute waitress. Doris admires Babe’s intellect and his lack of pretension about associating with African-Americans. At the nursing home, Doris is sent to a more extreme section of the home, where she has to deal with rotting bedsores and teeth. Horrified, Doris runs from the home. She recalls stealing the watch from Mr. Benjamin’s store and decides she will do anything to make enough money to get her kids back.
1959. In Pittsburgh, Doris is dressed as a nice. She bewilders a jewelry store clerk until she is able to steal ssome of the merchandise. Outside the store, Doris runs. In voiceover, Doris explains that she realized she needed a partner. She trusted Ada, so she asked her.
Ada hooks Doris up with Babe, a well-known entrepreneur with connections to the Jewish jewel market. Doris isn’t sure. Ada forces Doris to dance with Babe, and at closing time, she makes her pitch to him: she’ll get the diamonds if he can sell them. Babe is dubious, but when Doris shows him the merchandise, he agrees to consider it.
In her nurse’s outfit, Doris heads up to Windsor, Ontario, where she pulls the same scam she did in Pittsburgh — except the only Greyhound back to the States is canceled. The next one doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning. Panicking, Doris spends the night in the bus station bathroom. She hides her nurse’s uniform, steals a bathroom-user’s coat and hat, and blends in with a Native-American family on the bus. The police walk right past her. Babe’s impressed, wants to see her work. She says she only works out of town, but Babe’s taking a business trip to Philadelphia, so they agree to go together. She steals from a jewelry store while Babe poses as her husband. They share a hotel suite and get to know each other. That night, they make love. Later, Babe wants to know exactly how Doris pulls off the thieving. She tries to explain it. He asks if she’s afraid of prison, but Doris says she’s already done time. Babe suggests Doris dress up as a classy woman — a socialite or a schoolteacher. A nurse is too easy to track. They also make a set of rules on who they’ll steal from and who they’ll sell to.
In voiceover, Doris explains that the FBI began targeting “dangerous” African-Americans. AUBREY LIVINGSTON, an African-American agent, recites his oath of office and settles in to the Cleveland field office — just as Doris and Babe settle in to Cleveland Park, a wealthy neighborhood in the city. Babe and his wife, MYRA, invite Cleveland’s elite to buy diamonds. Doris poses as a ritzy broker from New York. Ronald, now a young man, shows up at Doris’s house. She’s happy to see him, but it’s awkward at first. They quickly settle back into their old routine. Doris calls George’s house to wish a happy birthday to her daughter, DONNA. George refuses to speak to her.
At the Club Caprece, Babe says he has a lawyer working on ways for Doris to regain custody of her kids. Dexy McCoy threatens Babe. Sick of Dexy running out his dwindling patronage, Babe fires Mavis. She’s enraged and makes threats herself. In the back office after closing, Babe loads shotguns and tells Doris to hide in the closet. Doris wants a gun, to help him, but Babe insists. Two THUGS stomp toward the office, and Babe blasts them each in the kneecaps. Doris emerges from the closet just in time to see Dexy coming — but Babe doesn’t see him. Doris throws a handgun to Babe, who has just enough time to blow Dexy away. Babe is amazed and impressed by the woman who just saved his life. In voiceover, Doris explains that she saw this incident as a sign that it was time to get her kids.
1968. Babe drives Doris and Ronald back to West Virginia. She reintroduces herself to her kids, who have all grown quite a bit. Glenn is a little excited to see her, but Donna has a hissy-fit, assuming Mary had just been mean when she said she wasn’t really her daughter. Glenn and Ronald help her calm down. George comes home, sees Babe, and gets jealous and violent. Mary forces George to leave her alone. Doris takes the kids back to Cleveland.
At Christmas, Doris spoils her kids. Babe spoils her by buying a beautiful diamond necklace. He mentions Myra is getting sicker and that they’re going to Switzerland to see a specialist. He invites her along, but Doris says she and Babe can go by themselves, some other time.
Easter. Doris steals from a jewelry store, but Aubrey Livingston happens to be there. He watches her make “the move,” dropping the valuable diamonds in her purse while replacing them with others. At the FBI office, Aubrey explains to coworker CHUCK RIDDICK that he won’t pick up Doris just yet because a thief like her deserves panache in her arrest. Babe is angry at Doris for being late, saying this violates their set rules. He’s also angry because Myra’s illness is costing him more than they’re earning stealing diamonds. His club is going under, as well. Doris and Myra come to an understanding — she knows Babe is sleeping with her, and she doesn’t mind as long as Doris doesn’t get any crazy ideas about “freeing” Babe from Myra. She has a seizure and collapses.
Doris steals from a Philadelphia jewelry store, but the cops make her. She steals anyway, but Babe isn’t where he’s supposed to be with the getaway car. As a result, Aubrey and Chuck tail them, pull them over, and arrest them. Doris hides the stolen diamonds under the car’s carpeting. Babe gets his own lawyer, infuriating Doris. She tries to tell her kids it’s a case of mistaken identity, but they don’t believe her. With her own lawyer and the lack of evidence, Doris gets a suspended sentence. Aubrey warns Doris that a day will come that she makes a major slip-up.
1970. A drunken Babe follows Doris, who’s startled. She makes him go away. She wakes up that night because Babe is throwing bricks, rocks, bottles, etc., at her house. He steals her car, so Doris goes down to the club. They have an argument. An angry African-American throws a molotov cocktail through the club’s front window, burning it to the ground.
1973. Babe gets Doris forged passports. Babe wants to know why she’s escalating her thievery when her kids are taken care of, and Doris says it’s because she’s good at it — it’s her gift. She goes to the U.N. in New York “to prepare” for the role as a sophisticated American divorcee traveling abroad.
Doris finds no challenge in stealing from London jewelers. She moves on to Paris, where she meets JEAN MARC LUCIEN. They flirt, but it turns out Jean Marc is also a thief — and he leaves her holding the bag. Doris narrowly escapes to Zurich. She steals some diamonds from Zurich, then goes to hide in a club, except her manic dancing antics are being broadcast on live TV. The police arrest and interrogate her. She speaks a made-up nonsense language, which confuses them into sending her to a psychiatric hospital. Jean Marc pretends to be a police officer taking her back to France.
Instead, he takes her to Monte Carlo, where she even catches the eye of PRINCE RAINIER. Doris steals a diamond worth a half a million Swiss francs, freaks out, gets in a taxi to the Nice airport. Airport officials recognize her, so she demands to speak with the American consulate. They’re ready to extradite her back to the U.S. when a NUN appears and urges Doris to go to the bathroom. She begs Doris for the stolen ring, and Doris obliges. The Nun then helps her sneak out of the French jail.
Doris continues to steal diamonds all over the world. In Tokyo, she gets a telegram saying her mother has cancer. When she returns to the U.S., the FBI is waiting. Aubrey takes Doris to see Clementine, then takes her to see Babe and Myra. Myra has gotten better, but Babe is sick. In voiceover, Doris says Babe died of a pulmonary embolism at age 56.
1990. Doris, nearing 60, is in a Cleveland prison. She looks at pictures of her children and her friends. A montage takes us through various other prisons she does time at. At one point, she has a near-death experience and sees Clementine and Louise smiling at her.
2005. Doris gets out of a Denver prison and makes her home there. She meets with Aubrey, tells him she intends to write a controversial memoir like James Frey. After writing it, she hits the talk show and lecture circuit. Doris takes a trip to France to see the Nun on her deathbed. She returns the diamond to Doris. As Doris leaves, Aubrey is there. He read her memoir and investigated the mystery diamond. She finally made her big slip-up. Doris smiles as Aubrey takes her hand.
Comments:The overall story of this real-life jewel thief has many remarkable elements, but it has been distilled into one unremarkable screenplay. So overstuffed with anecdotal moments, it has very little narrative focus and almost tells three separate, complete stories — but because the writer has to rush everything to cover 75 years, these separate stories are not satisfactory. If the writer focused on one of these stories and really fleshed out a 10- or 15-year period in Doris Payne’s life, it could make for one hell of a script.
The rushed nature also impacts the dialogue significantly; because every other scene has skipped ahead a few years, every other line of dialogue is bland, on-the-nose exposition. As a result, we never get a chance to really know any of the characters, other than Doris and Babe. This problem becomes significant when the writer attempts to portray Doris as a desperate woman driven to extremes to earn enough money to reclaim her children; a few very brief scenes show Doris as a mother, but these scenes don’t portray her as particularly doting or caring. Using the kids as her primary motive for stealing comes across as a cheap way to make Doris more empathetic. It falls apart completely when Doris continues to escalate her stealing after she’s reclaimed the kids and keeps them living in relative comfort (while also ignoring the fact that she often neglects the children in order to focus on her blossoming criminal career). Because the writer manipulates Doris’s true motives to such a degree, it’s much more difficult to get a sense of what really drives her. Some insight into the forces that compelled Doris to start stealing and continue long after she had to — and escalate, at that — would have helped. Plenty of movies have been made about empathetic criminals, so why stick Doris with a false, family-friendly explanation for her crimes?
The third act, covering Doris’s life as an international jewel thief (getting caught, doing her time, then getting caught again) is important in presenting this woman as a lifelong criminal, but everything about the “international” portion feels tacked on. The dramatic story essentially ends when Doris and Babe split, without a satisfying resolution, and then a new story begins with her and Jean Marc. The story becomes more frenetic than usual to cover 30 years in less than 30 pages and starts to feel like it’s ladling barely-relevant details. The real meat of the story occurs before Doris goes international, so shoehorning all of that information into this script continues to hurt it.
With big enough stars in the lead roles, this could do well. Although it’s an unmemorable biopic and an unmemorable crime thriller, the truth of the source material and high-caliber actors will draw in audiences. The international flavor might also intrigue European audiences.