The nominations have been announced and analyzed, and the awards-night hysteria has yet to shift into overdrive. Which makes this a great moment to salute this year’s over-40 female Oscar contenders.

By now, everyone not living on Neptune knows that there’s a woman—a beautiful, 58-year-old woman—in the race for Best Director. And, in a delicious burst of irony, that she’s squaring off against her ex. It’s a plot line straight out of the classic Oscar playbook—critically acclaimed movie underdog going toe to toe against the high-grossing, critically acclaimed, and in this case technologically groundbreaking front-runner, with the marital back-story amping the frisson. On Oscar night, Kathryn Bigelow might just end up brushing past James Cameron on her way to collect a Best Director award for The Hurt Locker, leaving him to console himself with Avatar’s stratospheric global box-office take.

It could happen. And there are plenty of people—including a number of Academy voters—who hope it does. But let’s get real. In the history of the Oscars, Bigelow is only the fourth woman to earn a Best Director nomination, and her predecessors all went home empty-handed. (The last was Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation.) Still, this year’s doubling of the Best Picture pool from five nominees to ten yielded two films directed by women, both in their 50s—Bigelow’s Hurt Locker and An Education by Danish director Lone Scherfig—an Academy Awards first.

It’s not a bad Oscar year for acting, either. Three of the five Best Actress nominees—Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep—are 45 or older, and one of them could easily win. The same goes for Mo’Nique, who’s widely thought to have a lock on Best Supporting Actress.

It’s perversely gratifying to realize that there are films by over-40 women that didn’t even make it into the nominations, or not very far: gratifying that it now takes more than one hand to count women directors in the film industry, and perverse because, well, why weren’t their films more widely nominated? To name a few: Jane Campion’s Bright Star (nothing more than Best Costume? C’mon)… Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (which may yet win one for Meryl)…Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel (also shut out beyond Best Costume)…and Nancy Meyers’s It’s Complicated. And then there’s Betty Thomas’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel—debatable as Oscar material, perhaps, but it did pull in more than $400 million worldwide, almost twice the figure for the original Alvin movie.

So yes, it was a good year for women over 40 in the film industry. And come Oscar night we’ll be rooting for our favorites along with the rest of the world. But the real celebration will come when a great year for older women in Hollywood isn’t the exception, but simply business as usual.

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  • heeso January 6, 2011 at 8:35 am

    I normally don’t post in Blogs but your blog forced me to, impressive work.. beautiful

  • andrea simon February 17, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    great story susan – and i’m glad you included the youtube links, because i was, how shall i put this, bemused or even saddened by the brilliant and tough-minded Kathryn Bigelow’s strikingly girlish aww-shucks style of self-presentation. what’s the moral here…? that we’ve come a long way on the outside, but there’s more work to do on the inside…?

  • b. elliott February 17, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Finally, the tables are turning! Thanks for your insights, Susan.

  • Billie Brown February 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    This is a wonderful piece and well-written. Thanks, Susan!