KISSES FOR GRANNY
From: The Mail &
Guardian - 28 July 2000
"Granny Lee" created confusion and wonder wherever she went, because
she was actually a he, and the white person buried in a white cemetry
turned out to be coloured. ANDREW WORSDALE talks about the documentary
on the life of a remarkable queer.
I was there. At Granny Lee's funeral in the Anglican Cathedral in
downtown Johannesburg in 1989. As someone remarks in the upcoming
documentary Metamorphosis - The Remarkable Journey of Granny Lee
- "It was a deluxe State Funeral." And with so many queens attending
it really was - with the sense of occasion and flamboyance that
always accompanied South Africa's most famous drag queen. I'd met
him some years earlier when I used to hang out with friends at several
gay venues in the city - and Lee was always there propping up the
bar in some glamorous outfit eyeing all the pretty boys and on occasions
snagging them. She was an institution in Johannesburg's nightlife.
him/her/self said in an audio interview with photographer Herb Klein
(who supplied 70% of the still photographs for the doccie), "I am
not one of those people who want to shine like common brass in sunlight...
The reason why I will never have a sex change is for the simple
reason that I'm a very holy type of person. People may not think
so, but I've been brought up that way. I don't think I will be accepted
with a plastic body in the new hemisphere wherever it is. That's
why I keep my body as I was born. The other reason is this. If a
man wanted a fish, he'd go to real fish."
was born Leonard du Plooy in Kimberley on the 18th of March 1919,
the youngest son of a dysfunctional coloured family. His father
left home when he was eight years old and his mother Kate had to
depend on her own resources and work as a cook for the Welfare Department
to support the family. Leonard went to The Perseverance Practice
School and trained there as a teacher. He then went on to become
a nursery school teacher and tennis coach, at one point even playing
professionally for Griqwa .
resigning his job he moved to Durban where he also taught and become
actively involved in nightlife and the gay scene. In his late twenties
he made for a very handsome young man, director Luiz DeBarros who
scripted and directed the documentary says he thinks he looked a
lot like Laurence Fishburne. In his fifties, Leonard moved to Johannesburg
and proceeded to become the city's most famous club-goer and drag
queen - by 1972 he'd become Granny Lee.
have never yet been called 'mister' in 20 years in this city," Lee
told Herb Klein, "They call me 'madam', 'missus', 'granny', or whatever
in shops. Not 'mister'. And my success is only this - because I
don't jump into men's clothes in the morning."
late night-socialising and heavy drinking (evidently his favourite
was a double brandy and coke with lemonade which he quaffed copiously)
led to a liver problem that caused her pigment to fade, aided by
an overdose of medication and excessive alcohol abuse Lee literally
turned white overnight.
Lee died in a car accident on a highway to Durban after she and
a couple of friends decided to travel down there on a whim one very
early morning. When her body was discovered Inspector Mostert of
the Vrede police station reported the body of an elderly white woman,
only later did the policeman - much to his astonishment, learn that
the corpse was not that of a white person nor of a woman. Before
her death she claimed she was 81 years old, when in reality she
was 71 - part of the ongoing 'created identity' that made Granny
Lee such an extraordinary character.
documentary Metamorphosis was conceived when DeBarros was developing
another doccie called Skin and he recalled the story of Lee and
went to research it at the Gay and Lesbian Archives at Wits University;
he found Lee's life fascinating and so began a month of intense
research, travelling to Kimberley, speaking to Lee's friends, placing
ads in the gay press for info and chatting to club owners. Eventually
he and producer Marc Schwinges pitched the idea to Eddie Masingana
of SABC 3 and the film was given a virtually immediate go-ahead.
says, "It's mainly a documentary about memory, there's not much
known about Lee's life prior to 1948 - also gay life at the time
was pretty much underground so the movie plays like a collage of
people's memories." Combining archive photographs, interviews with
friends (evidently a lot of people - especially in Kimberley - helped
the filmmakers in their research but refused to go on camera) as
well as some recreations featuring Ruth Barter playing Lee as well
as narration written by DeBarros with John Novik doing Lee's inimitable
gravel tinged voice, the movie makes for a visually enthralling,
totally engrossing insight into hard living, eccentricity, and identity.
realised that he had to use authentic disco music from the 70s and
80s for the film, there no way he was going to use mood music. This
proved a bit of a nightmare for Schwinges because of cost but the
enterprising producer managed to cut a cross-merchandising deal
with Universal/Value music in which they are releasing a double
CD compilation which includes Donna Summer's Hot Stuff, Alicia Bridges'
I Love The Nightlife and 38 other tracks from the era. "Evidently
I Will Survive was Granny Lee's favourite song," says DeBarros,
"but I couldn't bear the thought of it being featured in yet another
gay movie." In one more bold marketing move the filmmakers have
set-up a website - www.grannylee.co.za - where web-surfers can get
outrageous advice on love and life from beyond the grave, quotes
to remember, audio downloads and much more.
and Schwinges who are partners in Underdog productions have made
several cutting edge movies and are renegades in very much the same
style as Granny Lee although they are two young to have met her.
"I only started going to clubs the year she died but I do think
I know her vicariously after this film," says DeBarros who decided
he wanted to make movies after seeing Star Wars at the age of 7.
started attending Cape Town's Film School at the same age. They
met when Schwinges was in charge of post-production at Young & Rubicam
and DeBarros asked him to help with the cut of Pretty Boys, a documentary
about rent boys which he was making as part of a Wits Dramatic Art
degree. Since then the two have made Clubbing - a kind of Jo'burg
'Trainspotting' which they did for R2000, Hot legs ostensibly SA's
first gay film which clocked in at 30 minutes at a cost of R12 000,
Different Strokes a documentary about masturbation, Flaming Images
about the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival for e-tv and perhaps most
notably Death the highly acclaimed and Avante Award winning two-part
series about mortality for SABC 3. To keep themselves in food and
water in the long lapses in work filmmakers have to endure they
design Websites and do corporate videos (their first was for a penile
erectile dysfuntion device and ironically they also did the South
African launch for Viagra).
iconoclastic Schwinges and De Barros admit that they are fascinated
by identity, decadence and hard living even though they're both
basically homely types. A trait that Granny Lee shared and I'm sure
she's smiling from the next hemisphere that these two young funky
film entrepreneurs are helping her legend continue 11 years after
her untimely demise.