Along with the bumper-sticker inanity “Keep Austin Weird” and the names of a few key BBQ/Tex-Mex joints, a passing familiarity with Leslie Cochran has been thought of by many lazy carpetbaggers as proof of one’s affinity with Texas’ once-cool capital. Cochran, best known simply as “Leslie,” was the balding, goateed man who hung out on street corners wearing skirts and fake boobs, often accompanied by a giant handwritten cardboard sign detailing some injustice done by local police officers. He was often drunk and sometimes running for mayor, and a lot of us felt he was best appreciated from a distance.
In her first film, Becoming Leslie, Tracy Frazier lets the curious-but-wary Austinite get to know this character, who was often rumored to have died, but did in fact die in 2012. Frazier’s biggest discovery is that “Leslie” wasn’t the first whole-cloth personality reinvention for the man born Albert Leslie Cochran; less surprising is that many tolerant locals loved him, no matter how hard being his friend could be. An affectionate doc whose portrait isn’t quite deep enough to give it universal appeal, it will play quite well with SXSW-ers and expat Austinites, a reminder of the years when some misfits actually fought to keep rich newcomers and complacent city leaders from spoiling their funky Eden.
In his first few talking-head appearances onscreen, Cochran makes it clear how little he wants to discuss his real identity or his youth. We’ll eventually learn why: As a boy, he and his siblings were abused in multiple ways by emotionally brutal parents. He left home at 16 and put himself through high school, then joined the Navy in the first of several major life changes to come.
We’ll hear about those, but first the film shows how Austin reacted to the thong-wearing drifter who arrived in 1996 on a three-wheel bicycle. From the start, he created friction — getting roughed up when he’d loiter in the parking lots of businesses that didn’t want him — but the real antagonism arose between Leslie and the Austin Police Department. Tasked with enforcing a controversial new anti-camping ordinance, APD officers arrested Leslie many, many times, prompting his long cardboard-scrawled screeds against the city. And those were the polite messages: Frazier has photos of him parading around in a thong with “APD Kiss This” written on his butt. In their defense, officers were often just keeping a very intoxicated Cochran from getting himself hit by a car or suffering similar mishaps.
Between informative sections that tell of Cochran’s other lives in Colorado, Seattle and elsewhere, Frazier interviews the many tolerant, graying locals (mostly women) who let Leslie camp in their backyards or loaned him money when he needed it. (Surprisingly, we’re told he was good about repaying these debts.) Nearly all his benefactors would ban him from time to time, growing tired of late-night scenes, but many forgave him later, and all describe him as a warmer, more sincere man than the character he played on the streets. One longtime friend, hairstylist Ruby Martin, bonded with him and shot much of the video footage seen here.
We also see how his fame spread. Promoting the Texas-set Friday Night Lights, Connie Britton told David Letterman about Austin’s most colorful character; the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne presented Jay Leno with a set of “dress-up Leslie” refrigerator magnets. (Those magnets augmented Cochran’s income for years, allowing him to buy a two-story tool shed that was his home for a while.)
Inevitably, the film moves toward the years of decline. Cochran was hospitalized for a head injury in 2009 — perhaps the result of an attack, maybe a seizure — and as his health deteriorated he began, as one friend puts it, to look like an ordinary homeless person. It’s unpleasant to see Leslie age rapidly in these scenes, though even here, there’s more to the story than outside observers knew. Many fans came out of the woodwork when Leslie died, but Becoming Leslie assures us he didn’t go without knowing he had real friends he could rely on.
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Visions)
Production company: Freckled Fanny Films
Director: Tracy Frazier
Screenwriters: Sandra Guardado, Tracy Frazier
Producers: Lauren Barker, Michelle Randolph Faires, Ruby Martin
Executive producers: Austin Tighe, Louis Black, Christian Archer
Directors of photography: Russell O. Bush, Lee Daniel
Editor: Sandra Guardado
Composer: Ian Moore