Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Clifford paradox...

What exactly is the "Clifford paradox" and how does it relate to Bill Shatner's toupee? We'll try to explain. Clifford is a truly bizarre (but we think hilarious) 1994 movie starring Martin Short and the master of deadpan Charles Grodin. The movie features a number of references to toupees:

Including a toupee being thrown out of a window:

What's noteworthy about these moments is that not only is actor Dabney Coleman wearing a toupee, but so is Charles Grodin. The former within the fiction of the movie, the latter as part of the reality of the movie (ie. within the reality of the movie, Grodin's hair is real).

Grodin has spent most of his movie career wearing a toupee, but - and this is crucial - there have also been a few movies where he hasn't. Now, as we know, all it takes is one appearance without the toupee (in front of the camera or not) and the dynamics of the hairpiece are fundamentally changed forever.

In the (often unfairly overlooked) Steve Martin movie, The Lonely Guy (1984), Grodin plays a middle-aged man struggling to find love.

Not only does he appear without his usual toupee, but Grodin's character actually overtly discusses baldness in the movie:

And therein lie the seeds of the "Clifford paradox". We've often discussed how Bill Shatner's career as a young actor was helped by his toupee-wearing - in the fickle world of movie stardom, a leading man who was bald (with some exceptions) faced a steep climb in the 1950s and 1960s. If Bill Shatner insisted on being bald on-screen, roles would undoubtedly have been lost.

But what of the later years? Imagine that the producers of Clifford thought that Bill Shatner was perfect for the role that ultimately went to Grodin. But there's a problem - the toupee jokes (notice how in the first clip above, Grodin has some subtle fun expressing shock about the "rug"). A meeting is convened by the film-makers.

Crucially, in the fictional projected world in which we are asked to believe that Bill Shatner's hair is real, there should be no discomfort. Wanna play a role where there's a scene involving a toupee? Why not? Your hair is real, after all.

But the problem is that very few people occupy that paradox-filled world: Your hair is real, you claim, so if it is real then why are we uncomfortable? Why would we even mention a non-existent toupee-related issue or discomfort because, as you claim, your hair is real? The toupee is not supposed to look like a toupee, after all, rather it is supposed to project an image of real hair. So if the hair is real, then why are we even mentioning the word "toupee"? And if we know your hair is not real, and you know we know, then why wear a toupee in the first place? Why would you wear a toupee unless you were trying to present it as real hair? If the point comes when everyone knows it is a toupee, then are you wearing a toupee that looks like a toupee?

The whole thing brings to mind this scene from Star Trek's "I, Mudd":

Our toupologists tried to present the dilemma as an equation, and came up with this almost indecipherable mass of numbers:

More likely than not, the producers of Clifford would know that Bill Shatner wears a toupee and would likely be uncomfortable playing such a scene. Thus, the role would lost before it had even been offered. As for appearing bald in The Lonely Guy and openly discussing baldness - forget it. Another potential role lost. But then why wear a toupee to improve one's career if the opposite occurs, even once? A price that must be paid? Would the children be disappointed to find out that Captain Kirk was bald?

So against the improvement in the career that was brought about by the toupee, we must also factor in a potential negative component - lost roles in which baldness and hair issues are a integral factor:

And if all this isn't mind-boggling enough, there's more yet. Rather than discussing two polar opposites - toupee-wearing or baldness - a third alternative, one that appears to resolve the paradox, must also be examined. This option is the one selected by Grodin (and other actors such as Jack Klugman). It involves wearing a toupee on screen, but not as an absolute - meaning a toupee-less public appearance of some kind, just once. This has the effect of de-linking the toupee with personal issues (vanity, demons, image of self) etc. and rather presents it as a mere actor's tool or costume.

I am not Quincy.

We couldn't find any empirical evidence that the "on-screen, off otherwise" option had any negative impact on any actor's career - Sean Connery naturally springs to mind. Bond is bald? Who cares, right?

The toupee can still remain a preference, like a hat or shades, but the removal of the absolute opens up a fresh world of possibilities, such as those enjoyed by Grodin. When leading man roles demand hair (that's the fickle Hollywood factor), then actors such as Grodin oblige. But when other roles overtly call for baldness, that's not a problem either.

What's key is that the paradox which challenges the nature of reality (if a toupee is supposed to be real hair and we know it isn't, what does the toupee become?) itself is removed. And it tends to dissipate with remarkable speed. As a reader recently pointed out, John Travolta was recently spotted without his toupee:

It's interesting for about five seconds and then we all move on. The paradox has gone. The absolute has been swept away. Now there are choices. Now a potentially awkward elephant in the room has been banished. Now producers don't have to worry about whether they can or cannot offer certain scripts. Now, perhaps, an actor even gains an additional palette of vulnerability to explore now that this metaphorical wall has fallen...

Of course, for Bill Shatner, the toupee may be worth more than all of this. As a symbol of resistance to the passage of time, it has certainly performed admirably - in a few weeks, Bill Shatner will turn 80 and he's still going strong and his "hair" is as thick as ever!

As we truly and finally begin to enter the 21st century, humanity may find that the philosophical complexities surrounding William Shatner's toupee become the defining issue of our age; surely, that isn't a bad thing. The toupee adventure continues...


  1. I sincerely doubt we're ever going to see Shatner on camera without a toupee, let alone openly admit he wears one.

    I think in his mind it would be humiliating. Not that I necessarily agree, but to each their own.

    My thinking is, that despite this, he understands the value in the discussion about it, in that it keeps his name and continues to draw attention to him, and that's something any good actor always wants.

  2. Was there not a realisation of this in The Deadly Years in which Shatner wore a wig atop his toup to indicate that he was old and balding?

  3. Ratty Lost Years PieceFebruary 22, 2011 at 9:28 PM

    I see the movie Clifford stars Mary Steenburgen, who is something like Kevin Bacon, only with degrees of toupee separation. As Mrs. Ted Danson, I'm sure she channeled some Method acting techniques when she ripped off Dabney Coleman's rug.

    Connecting her with Shatner would likely release the level of toupular energy equivalent to cold fusion.

  4. I like the Travolta analogy, although he's done recent movies without a toupee. Pelham 123 is his hairline (maybe some thickening for the widow's peak), and From Paris With Love he shaved it off and rocked a killer Van Dyke beard! Also, there was the criminally underseen A Love Song For Bobby Long, where his hair is dyed grey, but is otherwise what he had left to work with.

  5. Klingon bastards...You've killed my toup.

  6. Travolta is almost sixty and still looking great - toupee or not. As for Bill, the illusion has to be sustained

  7. Travolta was wearing a toup, albeit a graying one, in 'Love Song' as well. That is not his real hair.



  9. Long live the combover