Twenty years ago, we didn't think much about who Leslie Cochran had been, or would become, when we made him a hero of the moment. Landing in turn-of-the-century Austin in tiara and thong, he became the Weird Made Flesh, and when filmmakers Tracy Frazier, Ruby Martin, and others in Leslie's orbit began to document the spectacle in 2005, his celebrity was at its peak even as signs of his decline were becoming easy to see. Now, Frazier and Martin's long-in-the-making documentary Becoming Leslie brings Austin's Queen of Soul into literal focus, both as a man who changed Austin, and one who Austin shaped into an activist, influencer, and role model.
Leslie's been gone since 2012, and while my generation may view Becoming Leslie wistfully as a portrait of a man and a city we miss, the film's power really lies behind the spectacle – the campaigns for mayor, the late-night TV appearances, all the way through to the end-of-life reminiscence in The New York Times. "The swift changes of Austin become a backdrop to time passing, and the city as a character mirrors Leslie's story," the filmmakers note, and for those of Austin's new era, who know the name or bought the fridge magnets but weren't part of that story, Becoming Leslie meets your biographical needs, and does much more.
Albert Leslie Cochran, 45 years old when he hit town in 1996, was already accomplished at charismatic alcoholic drifterhood, and with a lot of backstory – much of it unpretty. Leslie's splashy debut on Austin's streets, almost immediately joined in battle with the cops and bringing fresh eyes to the homeless underside of what was still a shiny new boom, was also his coming-out party as the gender nonconformist who would change his name to Leslie Alicia Cochran, the queer man whom his family of origin back in Miami never knew until the end. In both homelessness and queerness, Leslie got to be Weird in a way that wasn't always comfortable and that we, now decades later, view rather differently.
But Leslie was also Weird on an individual level: never "just a homeless person," but never fully not being one; almost always intoxicated; and in his commitment to "always living because I'm afraid of dying," putting himself at risk and complicating the lives of those who tried to steer him away from that danger.
Just as Austin is a character in Becoming Leslie, so is the camaraderie of the friends upon whom Leslie had such a powerful one-on-one impact – the folks who gave him a place to sleep and store his few but important belongings, got him out of jail and into and out of the hospital, lent him money to drink with that he usually repaid, and offered tough love he didn't always accept. Becoming Leslie then serves as a reminder that even this most singular of eccentric characters belonged somewhere, to someone, to us.
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