On 23 January, the 2007 Oscar nominations will be announced. And already the category generating the greatest excitement is Best Actress. Will it be a bare-knuckle fight between Dames Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal)? Or will Annette Bening, playing a bipolar mother in Running with Scissors be the surprise winner? And don't forget Meryl Streep as the supremely bitchy magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada. All four have been nominated for Golden Globes (the ceremony is on 15 January), seen as the warm-up for the Oscars.
In the era of the multiplex blockbuster, when adolescent boys have become the most important target audience, good roles for women have been depressingly scarce. But this year, the Academy will have an unusually difficult time narrowing the field to only five finalists. "Is this the new golden age for actresses?" American film critics are wondering.
Not only were there better roles for women than at any time in the past decade, all the leading contenders for Best Actress are over 45 - and none is playing a babe role. In her role as an embittered spinster who preys on a female colleague in Notes on a Scandal, Dench, 72, is a million miles away from her glam M image in Casino Royale. At 61, Mirren is happy to play a character almost two decades older than herself in The Queen.
If Mirren wins her first Oscar, she'll be the fourth-oldest actress in the history of the Academy. If Streep wins again, she'll create a new record. No lead actress has ever won the Oscar between the ages of 50 and 59. Only three women (Marie Dressler, Geraldine Page and Jessica Tandy) have won Best Actress over the age of 60. Tandy holds the record for being the oldest woman, at 80, to have won, for Driving Miss Daisy.
Best Actress winners are nearly always much younger than their male counterparts when they receive their first Oscar. But this year even the "younger" generation of actresses tipped are all over 30: Kate Winslet in Little Children, Penelope Cruz in Volver, Toni Collette for Little Miss Sunshine, Renée Zellweger for Miss Potter, and Cate Blanchett for Notes on A Scandal. Maybe - just maybe - the ageing of the baby-boom generation is creating a backlash against Hollywood's blind worship of youth, making it easier for over-40 actresses to get good parts.
"I think it's very hopeful," says Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre, "because we seem to be getting away from this ditzy celebration of celebrity and 'the next new thing'. There's an obsession with juvenilia, and 40-year-olds trying to look 20. I find it encouraging that experience and at least the illusion of wisdom is welcome. On the whole, people get more interesting, the older they get."
If 2006 was an unusually good year for mature actresses, 2007 looks even better. In addition to Notes on a Scandal and Running with Scissors, Blanchett stars in Babel and The Good German. Jennifer Connelly, who went so quiet after winning Best Supporting Actress for A Beautiful Mind, is back opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond. Hope is running high for Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd (finally, a return to form for Angelina Jolie?). And Vanessa Redgrave's cameo as Peter O'Toole's ex-wife in Venus has already got the critics talking.
Most encouraging of all, 2007 boasts three ensemble films with great roles for veteran actresses: Emilio Estevez's Bobby has Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and Helen Hunt; Doug McGrath's Truman Capote biopic, Infamous, features Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini, Sandra Bullock and Juliet Stevenson; while A Prairie Home Companion, the last film directed by Robert Altman, stars Streep and Lily Tomlin. All three are terrific pictures, but it's Bobby that makes shivers run down your spine. The film, which recreates events at the Ambassador Hotel on the day Robert F Kennedy was shot, has extraordinary performances from Stone and Moore. Stone plays a hotel beautician whose husband is having an affair with a younger woman; Moore is a washed-up alcoholic singer. In one scene, set in Stone's beauty parlour, the two women compare notes about society's attitude to women and ageing. It's riveting; for a moment we are back to the glory days of Mildred Pierce and All About Eve.
Because in the 1930s and 1940s -- Hollywood studios made countless "women's pictures" starring actresses such as Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Again, in the 1970s and 1980s, the economic power of liberated women ensured that American actresses such as Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, Karen Black and Sissy Spacek played more than just the wife, mother or mistress of the hero.
But economic factors, including the importance of first-weekend box office and foreign distribution, have marginalised "relationship" films in which those actresses often starred. It's been seven years since Julia Roberts won the Oscar for Erin Brockovich. Last year we had North Country, a reminder of just how powerful the "female whistleblower" film can be (it drew nominations for Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand). But the Academy loves big-hearted romance - so the Oscar went to Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line.
Older women traditionally have to make do with the Best Supporting Actress gong. But what's so encouraging this year is it's the female leads that are complex and multi-layered. Dench's role as teacher Barbara in Notes on a Scandal is her juiciest contemporary role yet. She is deadly. "She likes to do things that are slightly out of left field or seem difficult," says Eyre. "And playing this mean-spirited woman was really attractive." The film also gives Blanchett (playing a bohemian who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy) the chance to subvert her usual image.
In Running with Scissors, Bening plays a "bad mother" whose battle with depression leads her to abandon her son to a totally unreliable psychiatrist. And in The Painted Veil, also released in the UK in 2007, Naomi Watts plays a pampered socialite in 1930s Shanghai who cheats on her husband. Part of the joy of Infamous (out on 19 January) is seeing Sandra Bullock, playing reclusive author Harper Lee, mature as a serious actress after years of frothy romantic comedies.
This year there is real hope for actresses of "different" types. In the Best Supporting Actress category of the Golden Globes we have Mexican Adriana Barraza and Japanese Rinko Kikuchi for Babel; while Dreamgirls star Jennifer Hudson (neither as light-skinned nor as skinny as the Hollywood norm) is stealing the headlines from her co-star Beyoncé.
But not everything in the garden is rosy. The movies tipped for Best Film tend to be violent father-son dramas with few good roles for women . And male critics may have greeted Borat with adolescent glee, but many women were left cold. As feminist film writer Molly Haskell points out: 'When you look at all the good performances this year, they've been mostly by Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. They're all non-American. Even the serious American movies are so weighted towards masculine themes. Then you have Volver and The Queen and all these European films that are the only ones that deal with women."
But the huge success of The Devil Wears Prada must make Hollywood sit up and take notice. In addition to being written by a woman (Aline Brosh McKenna, who adapted Lauren Weisberger's novel), the film was brought to the screen by a team of mostly female producers and supervised by a female exec.
The great thing about The Devil Wears Prada is that it uses a fluffy, feelgood subject - fashion - to explore how even women at the top of the tree have to deal with double standards in the workplace. No wonder it attracted a stellar cast (alongside Streep, British actress Emily Blunt has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Globe).
"If you write a good role for a woman above a certain age - and it doesn't have to be particularly high, say 35 or 40," says Doug McGrath, the director of Infamous "there are so many good actresses that you really won't have trouble finding someone. I'm talking about great people - Sigourney and Isabella and Juliet and Gwyneth - because it allows them to show off what they can do. If you give them something, people who are real actors - not just stars - they'll come and do it."Reuse content