Jan 30, 2024

Slap and Tickle on the Silver Screen

Irish actors and their sex scenes

Matthew KeeleyStaff Writer
Saltburn (2023), dir. Emerald Fennell

The term ‘golden age’ is an exaggerated, cliché and often overused expression within contemporary culture. However, at the recent Golden Globes ceremony in early January, it was hard not to feel that we are witnessing something of a golden age of Irish screen actors. Cillian Murphy, Andrew Scott and Barry Keoghan were all in attendance as nominees in the ‘Best Performance by a Male Actor in Motion Picture – Drama’ category. Cillian Murphy won the award and acknowledged his fellow nominees, “Irish or not”, in his speech. It was as the camera alternated between an appreciative Murphy and an applauding Scott and Keoghan that I had a sudden realisation. There was an aspect that was being seemingly overlooked regarding each of their nominated performances. The sex scenes! 

Cillian Murphy won the award for Best Actor for his role in Christopher Nolan’s highly acclaimed Oppenheimer, a film that nonetheless attracted some critique over its sex scenes, which Rolling Stone described as “clumsy and unintentionally funny”. In one scene, Murphy delivers Robert Oppenheimer’s famous “I am become death…” line while Florence Pugh’s character is riding him. The quote comes from the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, and the scene has been likened to “waging a war on the Hindu community” by members of India’s political far-right.  

Andrew Scott’s intimate scenes in All of Us Strangers, by comparison, seem to have generated significantly less controversy. On the contrary, there was considerable anticipation for the film’s sex scenes between Scott, well-known for his turn as the ‘hot priest’ in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and Paul Mescal, possibly this country’s greatest living thirst trap. While the film is yet to be released in Ireland at the time of writing, such scenes are expected to be something to behold. 


Of course, we must also mention Barry Keoghan in Saltburn. Emerald Fennell’s divisive and debaucherous film features Keoghan’s character engaging in a wide range of unprintable exploits, chief among them the now-infamous ‘graveyard scene’. This solo (and incomprehensibly improvised) sex scene, among others, offered up every inch of Keoghan to the audience in a manner which was in equal parts shocking and sinister.  

But why is this significant? What relevance does any of this bear, you may ask, on these actors’ performances? Why should it matter that Irish actors are winning awards for films in which they feature in sex scenes? The truth is that it doesn’t, and that’s exactly why it’s so important. 

For decades, Ireland struggled with an oppressive and conservative approach to sexuality. As late as the 1990s, international films were banned for featuring such explicit scenes. This deeply ingrained sexual repression had an enormous impact on almost every facet of Irish life. Irish people were long discouraged from having, learning or even thinking about sex. 

But now, Irish actors are portraying intimate scenes in some of the most critically acclaimed films of the past year. If anything, Irish actors are now seen as international sex symbols and heartthrobs. From early trailblazers such as Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson to the current roster of Paul Mescal, Colin Farrell, Jaime Dornan, Michael Fassbender as well as Cillian Murphy, Andrew Scott and, sure why not, Barry Keoghan. 

The sex scenes in Oppenheimer, All of Us Strangers and Saltburn served as integral aspects of tremendous performances by incredibly talented Irish actors. The fact that these scenes are being recognised as such demonstrates the progress that has been made in on-screen expressions of Irish sexuality.

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