Leslie Cochrane was something of an acquired taste. He was a very loud middle-aged scantily clad cross-dressing homeless man who was the self-styled leader of a movement called Keep Austin Weird. In his intriguing new documentary from Tracey Frazier we don’t initially know he ended up in this conservative Texas city that he proclaimed was now his. What we see behind his very public outrageous displays of self-promotion and his more serious social activism was a man trying to forge a future by suppressing what we eventually discover is a very dark past.
By the time Leslie arrived in Austin in 1996 the city was moving out of recession and wanted to reclaim the downtown area back from the legions of homeless people that had moved in. Rather than create an social program to facilitate this the Council simply passed a draconian law that made it illegal for any homeless person to sit in a park bench let alone sleep rough on the streets. Leslie took on the cause which started his running battle with the Police and his countless arrests which in turn created his notoriety/fame.
He ran for Mayor threes times and became such a local celebrity that people paid to have photographs taken with him, and somebody even developed a dress-up-doll fridge magnet set all based on his colorful persona. He attracted both followers and friends but away from the street he was difficult and demanding and one by one most of his close friends felt they had no alternative withdrew from his life.
As Leslie refused to talk about his past Frazier had to dig dip to piece it all together from the few clues she had. Born in Miami he had suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both of his parents, had briefly lived as a roadkill scavenger known as Trapper Al in Oak Creek Colorado where he had the first (of two) very traumatic head injuries. He unwittingly committed bigamy when he wed an already married drug addict before he divorced her six months later.
Although he vehemently declared he had never touched drugs, he was unashamedly a very serious alcoholic and this was the real reason he was often arrested as his intoxication made him a danger to himself. His inability to stop drinking contributed to his failing health at the end.
Frazier has a wealth of archival material to work with thanks mainly to local photographer/hairdresser Ruby C. Martin began filming Cochran in 2005 while interviewing him in exchange for cutting and styling his hair. What she captured was man who was very skilled at putting on a brave face and never sharing his pain even when he was demanding more handouts from his friends.
Leslie’s sexulaity was never questioned, and beyond the mention of a marriage, there wa no talk of any other sexual partners. He was a flamboyant cross-dresser in an era before the whole dialogue about gender identity was ever begun.
When he died in 2012 at the age of 60, Leslie’s funeral and memorial service were packed and the Mayor even officially declared as Leslie’s day. Finally his estranged elder sister understood who her brother had been
It is unquestionable an entertaining and thoroughly compelling film, and as much as we so fascinated with Leslie the man, he was extremely difficult to be with at times and we have this sneaking feeling that we would have bailed out before most of the friends.