Judi Dench in Philomena
Still from "Philomena"

Beauty before age.

This twist on an old adage has held sway for the most part when it comes to selecting which actresses are granted an Oscar each year, at least for the past several decades.  But 2013 might find more than few new wrinkles (as well as some old ones) in a contest where experience doesn't always count.

Take the most recent Academy Awards race. Several pundits predicted that French actress Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest best actress candidate ever at 85, would win for her powerfully moving performance in 2012's Amour. How could they resist someone like Riva, who first found fame in the 1959 classic Hiroshima Mon Amour, when she delivered such an remarkable golden-years performance? Instead, Jennifer Lawrence, 22, became the second-youngest winner in the category for her sassy portrayal of a troubled young widow in The Silver Linings Playbook.

They should have known better. Consider that only four actresses 50 and over have won a trophy either as supporting or lead since 1990: Judi Dench for 1998's Shakespeare in Love, Helen Mirren for 2006's The Queen, Melissa Leo for 2010's The Fighter and Meryl Streep for 2011's The Iron Lady.

Neither is it a particularly new twist in such preferences. A 30-year-old Judy Holliday managed a surprise upset by taking the best actress prize as  a mobster's mistress in the 1950 comedy Born Yesterday. Left in the dust were two Hollywood legends of a certain age, Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.  

Tom O'Neil, who started his awards tracking website Gold Derby in 1999, has dubbed this predilection for honoring fresh-faced beauties the "Babe Factor."  He blatantly blames the apparent ageism on a certain segment of academy voters: "Bald-headed straight guys voting with their (bleeps) and choosing the one they most want to sleep with. Those who picked Riva were insane. Jennifer hit every single bullet point. She was young, she had a box-office hit with The Hunger Games, she was previously nominated for Winter's Bone - and she is a sexpot."

Youth is usually a stronger driving force in the best actress category. The average age of winner since 2000 has been 36. Meanwhile, the average for those male best actor winner is 44.

But a quick check of the actresses most likely to show up in the lead category this Oscar season defies this trend. Right now, the prime choices to compete include Judi Dench, 78, in Philomena;  Meryl Streep, 64, in August: Osage County; Sandra Bullock, 49, in Gravity;  Cate Blanchett, 44, in Blue Jasmine; and Emma Thompson, 54, in Saving Mr. Banks.

Who would dare say that this potential pool of contenders - all proud owners of at least one Oscar - aren't in their prime, despite an average age of nearly 58.  And even if Amy Adams sneaks in for her role in American Hustle, the 39-year-old is hardly a newbie with four previous nominations already to her credit.

The possibility of a quintet of seasoned female performers of such stature even has O'Neil rethinking voting trends.  "The Grande Dame factor is taking over," he says. "The best actress race is going to be a respectful one rather than a sexually degrading one. Instead of a rhinestone beauty pageant, the focus will be on great performances by veteran female stars."

The shift to older nominees could also be reflected in the lead actor roster as well. Among those expected to land a slot are a pair of 77-year-old pros:  Robert Redford in the one-man survivalist drama All Is Lost along with Bruce Dern for the father-son road trip tale Nebraska.  While the Sundance Kid owns a directing Oscar for 1980's Ordinary People as well as an honorary statuette, he still does not have a best actor award having lost out in 1973's The Sting.

If he does find his way onto the ballot, if will upend a different sort of prejudice often exhibited by voters - what O'Neil calls "slap the stud."  "It's the opposite of the Babe Factor," he says of the tendency not to reward hunky guys. "Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise - no Oscar for you."

However, once these actors hang on long enough, the chance they will eventually win improves greatly. "They will only give the Oscar to handsome guys over 60," O'Neil says. After all, Paul Newman didn't get his for 1986's The Color of Money until he was 62 - his seventh try.  "Redford is past being a matinee idol. He is safe now."

Sounds if Oscar itself might just be growing up a little at age 86.