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Reflectors vs. Absorbers: A Hollywood Theory for Why Romney-Ryan Will Lose

It's not their policies that will sink them. It's their optics.
It's not their policies that will sink them. It's their optics.
Illustration via Flickr

Here's why the Romney-Ryan ticket is a turn-off to voters and why they won't win in November, and it isn't only about their granny-starving, wealth-worshiping policies. The secret to the scary-bad vibe these guys give off as potential president and vice president lies in something a Hollywood veteran taught me 20 years ago: They're both "absorbers."

In the movie business, my screenwriter-director friend explained, there's a theory about what makes films (and TV shows) succeed or fail. It's all about the casting. And the casting depends on the chemistry of the stars. And onscreen chemistry can be simplified this way: Some people are reflectors and some are absorbers. You cast accordingly.

Being one or the other has little to do with how pretty or sexy someone is, though that is part of it. The qualities of reflecting or absorbing are more ephemeral. Basically, some human beings reflect light naturally and some seem to absorb it. Some give off a positive attitude and express believable sincerity, and some have something darker lurking just beneath the surface. Many great actors seem like they're lit from within, beaming it outward, and others, just as great acting-wise, are the dark entities, drawing light into themselves.

It's why Meryl Streep, a three-time Oscar-winning million-watt reflector, can't play a villain convincingly. Reflectors play heroes. They're the ones you love to see come out on top. Yes, she played Maggie Thatcher, whom some would regard as villainous politically. But the real Maggie was a gigantic reflector. That's why she was a political superstar. Ditto Ronald Reagan, a reflector who became a bigger heroic figure as president than he ever was as a movie actor (he usually played either a goofy romantic lead or a good guy who died young, typical reflector roles).

Absorbers are more believable playing antagonists to the reflectors' protagonists. They make good anti-heroes and sexy-but-troublesome lovers. Think about some classic successful reflector/absorber teams in the movies: Ginger Rogers (reflector) and Fred Astaire (absorber); Lauren Bacall (reflector) and Humphrey Bogart (absorber); Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart; Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart; Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart was the perfect actor-absorber, able to play a bad guy or a romantic lead opposite Hollywood's most beautiful reflectors. In Casablanca opposite Bergman, his absorber qualities were used to great effect by director Michael Curtiz, who kept Bogey's character Rick almost always in partial shadow; Bergman got the light. Directors used to know better how to use the reflector-absorber qualities of their stars. Alfred Hitchcock employed it perfectly in Psycho - reflector Janet Leigh seemed to give off a golden glow even in the black and white cinematography; villain Anthony Perkins, a natural absorber as an actor, was bathed in darkness.

More recently, examples of successful reflector-absorber match-ups in movies include absorber Ben Affleck doing his best work opposite reflector-buddy Matt Damon. Reflector Amy Adams is delightful opposite charming absorbers like Jason Segel (who, interestingly, is now involved in real life with reflector Michelle Williams). Absorber Vince Vaughn found an ideal reflecting co-star in Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers. And Vaughn was pretty good opposite reflector Jennifer Aniston in The Break-Up. The problem with Vaughn is, he tries to be a reflector. He should always let his co-stars do the shining.

Why did we love The Artist? Why did it win all those Oscars? Because Jean Dujardin is a supernova reflector and every frame of that movie was designed to amplify it. Why is Christian Bale so good as Batman? Because actor and character are classic absorbers.

Top reflectors in movies now: Streep, Emma Stone, Anne Hathaway, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Jason Bateman, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Halle Berry, Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow, Diane Keaton (still).

Top absorbers:

 

Bale, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Jeremy Renner, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Gosling, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, George Clooney.

You can achieve success teaming a reflector and an absorber, or two reflectors, but not two absorbers. Bogart was lousy opposite light-absorbing Joan Crawford; they were too dark together. But Cary Grant, reflector of all reflectors, made a wonderful lead opposite gorgeous reflectors Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly. That amount of light is too grand to resist. Stars that incandescent make each other brighter. Think what it's meant to Kermit and Miss Piggy (both reflectors).

But ignore this equation and you can't get a hit teaming Angelina Jolie opposite, say, Johnny Depp. It would feel like falling down a wormhole of negative energy. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal balanced light and dark perfectly in Brokeback Mountain. But Gyllenhaal and black energy swan Natalie Portman in Brothers? Nope. The Bourne franchise changed leads from reflector Matt Damon to absorber Renner and it's not the same, is it?

Bridesmaids, like TV's Friends, featured actors evenly split, reflector/absorber (you can work it out). Same with the Hangover movies and Mad Men and, come to the think of it, the better reality shows like Bravo's Real Housewives. Those ladies seem to have been cast solely on reflector/absorber qualities.

Oddly, some stars start out as reflectors and then over time become absorbers. Tommy Lee Jones did that. So did Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise. Nicole Kidman's on the cusp of tipping over to absorber, the way Faye Dunaway did. Sharon Stone tipped long ago.

So how does all of this apply to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan? Think about it. Who are they more like? Are they a pair of reflectors like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart? No. Are they a balanced absorber/reflector duo like Alec Baldwin and Paul Rudd? Not even. Think back to 2008 and that dour white-haired absorber John McCain. He hit a reflector bonanza with his veep choice of Sarah Palin. (Reflector qualities in showbiz have little to do with reflecting intellect or even the ability to self-reflect. It's just about the light thing.)

No, with Romney and Ryan, what you've got are a couple of large, light-swallowing absorbers. You have Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, minus the comic timing but with the luscious heads of hair. Together, Romney and Ryan just don't radiate the kind of light you need to make people believe you represent a force for good. These guys are primo absorbers who look like the characters in movies who put orphans to work in steel mills or steal the building and loan out from under George Bailey.

In Washington media terms, Romney/Ryan standing together makes for "bad optics." In the movie business, casting actors with their level of light absorption as co-stars in a major motion picture would guarantee surefire box office disaster. They are the Ishtar of GOP running mates.

And how do the Democrats rate on the reflector scale? Well, there'll never be a bigger Klieg light than Bill Clinton, who had his equal-absorber partner in Al Gore. But there's no doubt that Barack Obama has that lit-from-within candle power that burns hottest when he's really "on" in front a crowd. And Joe Biden? A lesser level of reflector, but still shiny as all get-out.

Two reflectors: winners. Two absorbers: losers. That's just the way it is.

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