Leading article: Golden years, golden awards

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The Independent Online

Successful film actresses have long complained that when they hit their fifth decade the offers of work tend to dry up. Just when they are reaching the peak of their talents it seems there are no good roles available. The reasons are easy to guess. The male-dominated Hollywood studio system is likely to be a major factor. And the fact that studios have grown increasingly obsessed in recent years with the teenage boy demographic is unlikely to have helped. More mature women have little to offer in this testosterone-fuelled style of film-making.

But could change be in the air? The shortlists for the British Academy Film Awards were announced yesterday. By far the most interesting category is for best actress. There are nominations for Dame Helen Mirren, for The Queen, Dame Judi Dench, for Notes on a Scandal, and Meryl Streep, for The Devil Wears Prada. None of these women is in the first flush of youth. All three have been nominated for Golden Globes. And they are also all in with a shout for an Oscar nomination later this month. Mature actresses appear to be getting more recognition in Hollywood. And they are being cast in interesting lead roles.

How can this be explained? One reason is that European film-makers such as Richard Eyre and Pedro Almodovar, who have always been interested in strong female leads, are breaking into the mainstream, or winning more critical acclaim in America. And Hollywood also has more female writers and directors these days. Female directors are now running the movie divisions of Sony, Paramount and Dreamworks. The Devil Wears Prada - which began life as a novel written by a woman, was adapted by a female scriptwriter, made by a team of female producers and supervised by a female executive - could be a sign of things to come.

But perhaps the old gender balance is merely reasserting itself. It is a myth that Hollywood has always cast women as mere arm candy for male leads. In the golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s there was no shortage of strong roles for actresses such as Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert and Bette Davis. In the 1970s and 80s Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek broke down barriers playing liberated women. Now the barrier to be broken down is the idea that mature women cannot carry a film. This awards season contains welcome signs that it is already crumbling.