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Oscars theory No. 2: The babe factor

February 21, 2008 |  2:38 pm

When Oscar is not comforting the long-suffering wife, he can often be found in the arms of a young beauty.

Last year's best actress winner, Helen Mirren ("The Queen") was the first leading woman older than 40 to take home an Oscar in a decade. Up until then, the list of recent winners looked like the lineup at a beauty pageant: Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow. Personally, I think Mirren was able to overcome that trend by embracing it. At age 62, she's still quite sexy (remember her nude scene in "Calendar Girls"?) and she was brazenly frisky while out on the Oscar campaign trail last year, even appearing on the cover of Los Angeles magazine tugging at her bra.


Granted, the younger screen lovelies would often win acclaim and awards by deglamourizing themselves to show Hollywood that they were more than just pretty faces. But during Oscar campaign season, off came the false noses, boxing gloves and trailer-trash outfits, to be replaced by designer gowns and comely coifs.

This year, classic Gallic beauty Marion Cotillard turns from ugly duckling to swan and back playing tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf. With her head shaved and her eyebrows plucked, the French actress, 32, is transformed into the "little sparrow" at the end of her troubled life.

While 1960s siren Julie Christie, star of "Away From Her," still sizzles in real-life, like Mirren, for this 66-year-old to win would be to buck the trend. Though this age bias is less blatant in the category for supporting actresses, older gals still triumph there only now and then: Judi Dench once, Dianne Wiest twice in recent years, for example.

Pace University proved the obvious a few years ago when it conducted an Oscar study spanning the 25 years before 2000 and discovered that best actor winners were, on average, five years older than their female equivalents. And seven years separated male and female nominees.

In the last 15 years only two actresses older than 50 have won an Oscar in the lead or supporting races: Dames Mirren and Dench. Meantime, consider all of these chaps north of the half-century mark who've triumphed during the same years: lead actors Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, and Anthony Hopkins as well as supporting players Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, Chris Cooper, Jim Broadbent, Michael Caine, James Coburn, Martin Landau, Gene Hackman, and Jack Palance.

None of this is new, of course. Take the best actress matchup of 1951, for example. To most Oscarwatchers, it looked like a diva smackdown between two big-screen grande dames: Gloria Swanson ("Sunset Boulevard") versus Bette Davis ("All About Eve"). Davis had already won twice, so the graying Swanson, age 53, hoped she could finally nab her overdue Oscar at last, but the gold, alas, was snatched away by ingénue Judy Holliday, who portrayed a gum-snapping floozy in "Born Yesterday."

It just so happened that Swanson and 29-year-old Holliday were seated side by side at a nightclub in New York when they heard the news over the radio. A newspaper photograph captured the scene: flabbergasted Holliday looked spooked as her eyes bugged out of her pretty little head upon hearing that she'd won. She didn't seem to notice Swanson, who leaned in close whispering, "I'm very happy for you, dearie, but, ahem, couldn't you have waited till next year?"

This year, age versus beauty may matter again if the lead actress race is truly between Christie and Cotillard. Or is age not really an issue this time? Perhaps Cotillard deserves to win fair and square or might Christie prevail despite the odds? Or maybe Ellen Page will win for "Juno," thus becoming the ultimate Oscar babe, having just turned 21 today (Thursday, Feb. 21).

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