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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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Johnny Depp makes people cry in Wisconsin
Spot a celebrity, shed a tear
They're not tears of sorrow, obviously, but they're not quite tears of joy, either.
They're not tears of sorrow, obviously, but they're not quite tears of joy, either.

He shook this town up when he came, the youthful-looking fortysomething who, on a platform of change, drew throngs of admirers and roused weary young Wisconsinites out of their winter doldrums.

Okay, I made up the part about a platform of change. But I'm talking about, of course, Johnny Depp, whose arrival in the Badger State -- for the filming of Public Enemies, an old-time gangster movie -- set off a frenzy rivaling the one that greeted Barack Obama's socko appearance at the Kohl Center.

My mind was blown when I read Rod Melotte's account of the shoot earlier this week in Columbus. Melotte reports that hundreds -- hundreds -- of people had turned up at dawn on a cold Monday morning to take in the action. If I'm even awake at dawn on a cold Monday morning, I'm probably thinking about getting back to sleep.

Many of the onlookers had surely come for the sheer spectacle that is the Hollywood machine in action. It probably felt like the circus had come to town. But others, clearly, were there for Depp and Depp alone. Here's how Melotte describes one fan's reaction to a sighting of the star:

The first time he passes, a young woman says over and over, "OH MY GOD IT WAS JOHNNY DEPP!" She borrows my cell phone to call her mom and is sobbing while telling the story of just how close she was to the actor.


Which is weird, and possibly an overreaction.

Understand, I think Depp is a fine actor. Thanks in no small part to his long-running collaboration with the idiosyncratic director Tim Burton, Depp is a rarity among American film performers, an actor whose thoughtful integrity remains largely uncompromised.

Fifteen and more years ago I was moved by him in quirky, small films like Ed Wood and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? And he is still smartly challenging viewers with films like the recent all-singing, all-throat-slashing Sweeney Todd, as well as 2004's The Libertine, about a seventeenth-century English poet who paid tribute in verse to dildos and crab lice.

Of course, Depp would not be a household name if not for the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and that series is probably how the weeping young woman in Columbus knows Depp best. (Unless she was a big fan of The Libertine.)

So to summarize: His serious work notwithstanding, Depp is mostly loved by silly young people for a series of silly pirate films, and only a silly young person would burst into tears at the sight of a celebrity. Right?

Except I'm not so sure. Something similar happened to me a few years ago, and I wasn't all that young. Neither was the celebrity in question. In fact, he was 72.

It was an overcast summer night in 2003 when I went to Wausau to hear country music legend George Jones sing. He performed at the Wisconsin Valley Fair, where I sat in bleachers hundreds of feet from the outdoor stage. There was a cheesy warm-up act. Jones looked old. He sang songs that were hits in the 1950s. At 32, I seemed for the most part to be the youngest person there by 20 years.

And from the moment he started singing, I couldn't stop crying. Seriously. I was badly dehydrated by the show's end -- which, for what it's worth, was punctuated by the most violent summer thunderstorm I've ever been caught in. Since my teens I have thought George Jones was pretty wonderful, and I wept at the sight and sound of him.

So I identify with the young weeping woman in Columbus. Our popular entertainers can exert an awesome emotional pull on us, whether they're moaning incomparably sad country songs, as George Jones does on his records, or looking incomparably beautiful on a 30-foot-high movie screen, as Johnny Depp does, in whatever role.

And when we are in the actual presence of these entertainers, that emotion can't help but come out -- sometimes, in tears. They're not tears of sorrow, obviously, but they're not quite tears of joy, either. They're a reaction that simply says: that is the person who moves me. That person standing freaking right there!

I understand it. So, perhaps, do those men who cried on sports radio call-in shows when Brett Favre retired. We get very invested in our celebrities.

Actually, if I'd been standing with the young weeping woman in Columbus, maybe I would have been weeping right along with her.

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