"It wasn't calculated! I swear! You must believe me!" Kate Winslet gasped to Gold Derby late last year as we discussed her recent photo shoot with Vanity Fair. That bawdy gig had been a perfect way for her to begin seducing Oscars' voters as she unveiled "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader."
As every Oscarologist knows, voters have judged the lead and supporting actress races in recent years as if they were beauty pageants. Consider, for example, some of the gals who won best actress this past decade: Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon. Last year, when most Oscar pundits bet on 66-year-old Julie Christie ("Away From Her") to win, the younger, prettier contender pulled off an upset: Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose").
Only two women over the age of 50 have nabbed an Oscar over the past 15 years: Judi Dench ("Shakespeare in Love," 1998) and Helen Mirren ("The Queen," 2006). Mirren was still quite sexy at age 61 and had even done a nude scene in "Calendar Girls" three years prior.
And to demonstrate that she was still hot to trot, Mirren blatantly flashed her bra on the cover of Los Angeles Magazine that derby season and brazenly said racy stuff to journalists while bearing lots of cleavage on red carpets or backstage in press rooms.
Poor Kate Winslet, 33, needed to play it smart this year. After five previous defeats, she could end up tied with Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter as Oscar's biggest-losing actresses if she is snubbed one more time. Two years ago Mirren confessed to me that she deliberately cranked up the hootchie-cootchie as part of her campaign. This year Winslet stressed to me that she did not do the same thing on purpose. The Vanity Fair gig, she claimed, just happened to have fortunate timing.
Even if that's true, Winslet was smart to showcase herself as a babe, especially in comparison to 59-year-old star Meryl Streep who portrays a grim nun in "Doubt." And it certainly helps Winslet that she's naked a big chunk of time in "The Reader."
The babe factor is not a recent phenomenon at the Oscars. A Pace University study of the years 1975 to 1999 revealed best actor winners were, on average, five years older than their female equivalents. And seven years separated male and female nominees. Though this age bias is less blatant in the category for supporting actresses, older women still triumph there only now and then. Before Dench won her supporting Oscar in 1998, it had been 11 years since 56-year-old Olympia Dukakis prevailed for "Moonstruck." And the last woman over 50 to win lead actress before Mirren had been Jessica Tandy ("Driving Miss Daisy") in 1989.
Consider all of these chaps north of the half-century mark who've triumphed during those same years: lead actors Daniel Day-Lewis, 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 Oscar-watchers, 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?"
Photos: Miramax, Vanity Fair, Los Angeles Magazine