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Barry Keoghan and his Irish buttocks: the naked Vanity Fair shoot is a win for the actor

Donald Clarke: Being talked about matters. And this is us talking about him

Will society ever get over its neuroses about the naked body? It is more than 50 years since the cast of Hair disrobed on a West End stage. Yet a glimpse of buttock is, it seems, still enough to send Anglophone media (not the French obviously) into a buzz of sweaty agitation. Two Irish buttocks in particular.

It was on Sunday night that a BBC reporter created a hubbub by – bizarrely, it has to be said – inquiring, on the Bafta red carpet, whether Andrew Scott had a view on Barry Keoghan’s dangly bits. Now, in what feels like a first, the Dubliner has appeared naked, hands covering subjects of the BBC’s inquiry, on an X (formerly Twitter) advertisement for Vanity Fair’s latest Hollywood edition. On the cover itself, he is, friends and family will be pleased to hear, smartly dressed in a Gucci suit that, I’m betting, cost more than a family car.

All this has, of course, to do with the last scene in Emerald Fennell’s endlessly chewed-over Saltburn. Writing in this place a few months ago, I argued that that bathtub scene and that graveyard scene would be the ones that really lodged in the popular consciousness. Who, now, cares about Barry exposing all while gyrating to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor? It’s not 1953. Well, at the Baftas, Colin Paterson wasn’t (ahem) letting it go. “There is a lot of talk about prosthetics – how well do you know him?” the generally amiable Scottish reporter asked. Scott smiled politely, said goodbye and made his way elsewhere. “BBC reporter criticised for ‘disgusting’ Bafta interview!” ITV raged. You have to hope no French stars were watching. This incident would have confirmed all their snootiest prejudices about the British.

Now, BK’s nude prance turns up at the periphery of a media institution. Over the last 30 years, in its last edition before the Oscars, Vanity Fair has plastered an array of stars across its glossy cover. For what seemed an aeon, Annie Leibovitz, the most famous celebrity photographer of her age, employed a hazy blandness that turned all her subjects into sexless identikits. Once people worked out what star they were looking at, they did their best to get annoyed about who was there and who wasn’t. Were there enough women? Were there enough people of colour? Was Jack Nicholson back? Who is relegated to the inner bit of the fold-out?

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This year’s icy photograph, by Gordon von Steiner, happens upon a typically starry line-up: Bradley Cooper, Natalie Portman, Pedro Pascal. Oscar nominees Lily Gladstone and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are there. Barry is at the end. But where are the veterans? Time was, Diane Keaton or Harrison Ford would get a go. By my calculation, Colman Domingo, born in 1969, is the only person there over 50. There is always something to irritate in this thing.

Anyway, never mind that. The subject under unnecessary consideration is Keoghan’s lower valuables. The 48-second video, trailing the issue, gives the impression – this may be a visual effect – of the subjects chattering on a walkway that is moving them from right to left in the frame. Jodie Comer throws some scouse at Gladstone. Charles Melton makes a remark about “pretty big coconuts” (!) to Greta Lee. Keoghan then appears on his own. As the day he was born. With hands preventing any clarification about those prosthetics.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. At the risk of sounding like Lord Whataboutery of Wokephobia, this would never happen with a female actor. There is no possibility of Comer or Portman being asked to smirk at the camera while placing fingers where underwear normally sits (mind you, there was a time). If that had happened you would be reading outraged rants about it for days.

Obviously wider questions about gender inequality in media power structures colour that distinction. It matters who is asking whom to take their clothes off. But the clip also gets at a variance between how male and female nudity has long been viewed in popular culture (though maybe not in France). Graham Chapman opens the window to expose his knob to the public in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Recall the black boxes over Sacha Baron Cohen and Ken Davitian’s danglers in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

A psychologist would surely argue that the stubborn perception of male nudity as “funny” is there to deflect from a subconscious homophobia in the masculine brain. If you laugh then you’re not turned on. Ha, ha! Now smash another beer can on your forehead. There is nothing of Robert Mapplethorpe’s celebration of male sexuality in the Vanity Fair clip. We don’t even get the coy sauciness of Fennell’s film. We are, here, closer to cheeky nude larks stretching back from the Carry On… films and on through American Pie up to Borat.

None of which will much worry Keoghan. Cillian Murphy has got the Oscar nomination (and a probable win) for Oppenheimer. Mescal and Scott got the raves for All of Us Strangers. But who is wearing Gucci and not wearing anything for Vanity Fair? “The virality of that scene shot Keoghan to a new level of fame,” the magazine’s piece said of Saltburn’s denouement.

Being talked about matters. And this is us talking about him. A win for Barry.