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For Best Actress, a year for the 'silver foxes'

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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.

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