Older actors could sweep Academy Awards -- Shirley MacLaine, Lauren Bacall, and others may carry the Oscars this spring

Break out the Geritol! Usually, the annual Oscar race offers at least one veteran performer in competition — think Paul Newman for Nobody’s Fool two years ago. But this year more than a half dozen golden-age actors could end up with nominee nods. To wit:

— Lauren Bacall’s Back: The 72-year-old actress is leading the Best Supporting Actress pack, thanks to her scene-stealing performance as Barbra Streisand’s busybody mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. ”Keep in mind that movie audiences haven’t seen a lot of her lately. That’s one thing that could make this Oscar happen,” says a Sony awards strategist. Other pluses: She’s a bona fide legend, she’s kept busy on Broadway, and, way back when, she taught a guy named Bogie how to whistle.

— The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds: The Academy loves comebacks, and Reynolds, 64, supposedly stages a big one in Albert Brooks’ Mother, about an unlucky-in-love writer (Brooks) who returns home to live with Mom. She also has the Hollywood rep to wind up a Best Actress choice. Besides a roller-coaster career, she gave birth to a famous Hollywood daughter, Carrie Fisher. And she was previously a nominee — 31 years ago for The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

— One Cool Mother: Generation X, meet Gena Rowlands. An alternative movie star when Quentin Tarantino was still in diapers, Rowlands, 62, has been rediscovered, thanks to Miramax’s Unhook the Stars, playing a widow who finds a new purpose in life. Previously nominated for A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980) — both by her acclaimed late husband, filmmaker John Cassavetes — this time Rowlands is directed by her son, Nick Cassavetes, which only adds to the poignancy of the performance.

— And Maybe…: Shirley MacLaine, 62, could take home yet another statuette for playing Houston matron Aurora Greenway, the role she originated in 1983’s Terms of Endearment and reprises in this year’s sequel, The Evening Star. Walter Matthau, 76, and Ossie Davis, 78, may prove contenders in the Best Actor race for their turns in I’m Not Rappaport. Marion Ross, 68 (Happy Days‘ Mrs. Cunningham), could earn a Supporting Actress nomination playing MacLaine’s companion/cook in Star. And Italy’s Vittorio Gassman, 74, is a possible Supporting Actor nominee for his role as a Hell’s Kitchen crime lord in Sleepers.

In a business increasingly known for ”flavors of the week,” this year’s golden oldies are all the more intriguing. Says one veteran Oscar campaigner: ”They’ve survived, which is more than most of the current Hollywood names will do.”