By Solvej Schou
November 21, 2012 at 03:31 PM EST

Hollywood may be filled with talented younger actresses, their fresh skin and high cheekbones readymade for lovingly placed close-ups and leggy magazine covers. But this year’s early Oscar race for best actress has the spotlight shining on a handful of older contenders — from Sally Field in Lincoln to Helen Mirren in Hitchcock and Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — their veteran faces etched with experience, beauty, and perhaps a bit of wisdom.

“Older actors, especially women actors, have always been incredibly important to storytelling on the big screen,” Elizabeth Daley, dean of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, told EW. “The characters they play are often what ground the story, and these actors are so good at what they do that their performances also elevate the films. So I would argue that every year there are films that feature good or great performances by older women. And years like this one, when many of them are being considered for awards, force us to publicly acknowledge their importance in compelling storytelling.”

Case in point, Meryl Streep, now 63, snagged a best actress Oscar this year for her starring role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Mirren, 67, grabbed her best actress Oscar in 2007 as another mature, tough Brit lady, Queen Elizabeth II, in The Queen. Dench, 77, won a best supporting actress Oscar in 1999 as powdered Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare In Love, when she was in her mid 60s, and has been nominated multiple times since, playing strong parts custom fit for an older actress (Mrs. Henderson Presents, Notes On a Scandal).

And Field, who once flaunted her bikini body on Gidget, is now earning heaps of praise and Oscar clout for her performance as the petticoat-wearing first lady Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln. In the movie, she moves between emotional breakdowns drenched in a mother’s grief, and strong, mouthy tirades at dinner parties and in the White House. Her post-Civil War Mary Todd may not have the right to vote, but she certainly has opinions, and Field expresses them without reservation.

Scilla Andreen, the 51-year-old CEO and co-founder of online independent film distribution company IndieFlix, who’s also a member of the voting Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, noted the buzz around Field and the satisfaction of seeing mature actresses flourish on screen.

“The more seasoned actresses can win the highest honors, [the more] it opens up the floodgates for these films to be produced and made, because they’re not considered as high risk,” Andreen said. “It still has to be a great movie. When the story is great, we look so beyond the physical characteristics. It’s all about the heart and soul of the character. We’re doing better portraying real people in the lead role. I know Sally Field gained 20 pounds in her role, and I hope people notice.”

Dench, as retiree and widow Evelyn Greenslade in the coming-of-age-when-older The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, hashes out a new beginning along with six other retired Brits who plunk down at a hotel in India advertised as a lower budget retirement community.

She’s vulnerable yet quietly tough in the role, dealing with finding her first job, then finally landing one training Indian telemarketers as a sort of cultural liaison (she’s broke due to her deceased husband’s debts). Dench is a master at transforming herself and she’s also a gorgeous woman, regardless of age.

The movie’s 63-year-old director John Madden, who also helmed Shakespeare in Love, was drawn to doing Exotic Marigold to showcase the lives of older people, especially women, who change as their families shift and spouses die. “I was interested in this film because it seemed to take as its subject old age, people moving to that point where they get placed in a ghetto psychologically speaking,” he told EW. “There’s a tendency to be ignored in our culture. This film was an opportunity to deal with this subject. It’s essentially a comedy, where their age doesn’t matter.”

So when it comes to Dench’s character, reinvention is necessary. That, or surrendering to loss and financial troubles, which she refuses to do.

“The industry has woken up to the fact that there’ s a huge audience out there that want to see their experiences reflected in the story,” Madden said. “It’s like the Rolling Stones, in a different way. Old age is a little bit different now. People are living longer and working longer. This year in particular, there are a number of films dealing with this issue, and specifically, aging. You’re never aware of being a movement.”

Madden describes the romantic world of older women explored in Exotic Marigold and other Oscar-buzz movies as “a step forward for everyone.” Sex, love, lust, attraction are feelings – emotional, physical – that belong to everyone, from 25-year-olds with reality-TV bodies to baby boomers who may still be photographed in their bikinis (we’re looking at you, Helen Mirren!). Oscar voters and aging film lovers take note.

“When you’re a bit older, there are more layers to you as an actor, and a human being,” said Andreen, citing Ruth Gordon, who played the 79-year-old lover of a much younger man in 1971’s Harold and Maude. “That was a role for a more seasoned character actress that still stands up today.”

Mirren, who herself has always straddled the line between smart, sexy, and seasoned, highlights all three qualities in Hitchcock, casting Oscar attention on her role as Alma Reville, the wife of Anthony Hopkins’ 60-year-old Master of Suspense director Alfred Hitchcock.

She’s unflinchingly direct, easily annoyed and also supportive, a wife with inside knowledge of a famed man. She jokingly tells Hopkins’ Hitchcock, “Yes, you’re a true relic, and lest we forget, a notably corpulent one.” She revises his scripts, and also puts him in his place. They sleep in separate beds, per the film’s late ’50s setting, and yet, she’s a shorthaired older knockout, surrounded by Hitchcock’s young, blonde ingénues.

Mirren, similar to Field, and Dench, mines her own experience, and a certain tweaked confidence.

“The actors are an extraordinarily precious resource, because they have traversed extraordinary careers, all of them: Judi, Maggie [Smith], and Helen Mirren,” said Madden. “They’re recognized immediately, and have a connection with an audience.”

For more film news Follow @solvej_schou

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