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.”

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