LOS ANGELES — Norma Desmond should have lived so long.
The fictional Hollywood icon and tragic protagonist of the 1950 film classic "Sunset Boulevard" was merely 50 when an oily-faced young assistant director told Cecil B. DeMille, cattily, "She must be a million years old."
Fifty-seven years later, three over-50 actresses will be among those battling it out for Best Actress in a season dubbed "Year of the Silver Foxes." Nominations for Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench, and Meryl Streep greatly boost the likelihood that 2007 will buck the Oscar-night trend of the past decade, in which all Best Actress winners were 39 or younger.
Few are ready to declare a cinematic rush to create roles for female 50- and 60-somethings. But the high honors to three elder stateswomen of the silver screen show the industry's sunset clause on actresses is less entrenched than it once was – and could signal to the industry that audience tastes are changing and broadening.
"This is a milestone that shows to everyone ... that the best of filmmaking has nothing to do with ageism," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers, which tracks and analyzes box-office trends. "It comes down to the merit of great performances. Older actresses are doing great work, and great roles are coming their way. This opens the way for more of the same."
In nominations announced Tuesday, Ms. Mirren makes the list for her portrayal of the reigning British monarch in "The Queen," a film that deconstructs the behavior of the royal family after Princess Diana's death. Ms. Streep defies the Academy's traditional reluctance to nominate comedic performances in her ever-so-slightly campy take on the boss from hell in "The Devil Wears Prada." And Dame Judi Dench stays just this side of crazed in her role as an infatuated colleague of the adulterous Cate Blanchett in "Notes on a Scandal." Nominations for Penélope Cruz for "Volver" and Kate Winslet for "Little Children" round out the slate. Awards night is Feb. 25.
"It's nice to see the range of subjects expand with older actresses.... It's an area of acting that Hollywood has neglected for way too long," says Chris Lanier, president of Motion Picture Intelligencer, which analyzes movie content and audience reaction for Hollywood producers. "Hollywood has tended to focus ... on youth-oriented women because they think that is where the sweet spot is financially. That is not true. You can make a movie with those of any age and, if done well, can profit artistically and financially."
Some longtime industry watchers, however, suggest that these nominations are the exceptions that prove the rule.
"I don't think this necessarily signals a change in anything," says Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of communications at California State University at Fullerton. If anything, mainstream Hollywood is more focused than ever on churning out films with young stars aimed at pleasing its primary market of youthful moviegoers, she adds.
To Christopher Sharrett, professor of communication at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., the crop of good films last year was slim – and that forced the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences to "stretch a bit," looking at performances in lesser films for Best Actress nominees. That's why so many seasoned actresses, who know how to make the most of their roles, made the list this time, he says.
Giving recognition to actresses with lengthy résumés, moreover, is an industry tradition. "This is almost a sort of lifetime achievement award," he says. Particularly in the case of Mirren's nomination, "there's a sense that much of her best work has gone unrecognized, so it's time."
The growing trend toward viewing movies at home on DVD bodes well for older performers, some industry analysts say. The home-viewing audience is more diverse – that is, older – than the cineplex crowd, and it is receptive to movies with actors of varying ages.
"The fact that revenues are now coming from the home video market is a good thing for older audiences and performers," says Joseph McBride, assistant professor of cinema at San Francisco State University, noting that 2006 marked the first year that more people viewed films on DVD at home than in theaters. "Older audiences over 25 tend not to go to theaters as much as younger moviegoers, so the more money that comes from that market the more films they'll make for that market."
As more baby boomers become card-carrying AARP members, expect more character-driven, "smaller" films with actors of a wider range of ages, says marketing specialist Jason Karpf. "Baby boomers ... are still a vital generation in terms of their self-image and spending power," says Mr. Karpf. "These ladies are all boomer leading ladies."
That logic doesn't apply only to women. Septuagenarian Peter O'Toole is up for Best Actor. Alan Arkin, in his early 70s, is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And, says Mr. McBride, look at two nominees for Best Director: Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, both well into their primes. He notes a willingness among movie audiences, since 9/11, to contemplate serious themes. World turmoil has become so unavoidable, he says, that the industry is "more willing to green-light films that deal with reality."
As the film's narrator says to Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," the only tragedy about turning 50 is trying to pretend you're still 25.