Notice the little arrows? Those indicate wins that seemed somewhat, er, anomalous for their decade: Gwyneth (then age 26) in the 1990s, Dame Helen Mirren (age 61) in the 00s and Meryl "Iron Lady" Streep (age 62) in the current decade.
To me, the list indicates that Gwyneth's 1996 win was a watershed moment - turning the tide to a decade of 'ingenue' wins in the Lead Actress category. In the 1990s, 4 out of 10 winners (Bates, Lange, Sarandon, McDormand) were in their 40s. Post-Gwyneth, that wouldn't happen again (with the exception of Mirren) til 2009.
What changed? It's hard to generalize, but one does see broad trends: the 1980s included several wins for older veteran actresses (Hepburn, MacLaine, Page, Tandy), with younger and mid-career actresses mixed in. In the 1990s, several winners were in their 30s and 40s and even those on the younger end (Jodie Foster, Emma Thompson) could hardly be categorized as 'starlets.'
But Gwyneth's girlish tears upon accepting the award for Shakespeare in Love ushered in a decade of "princesses." Whatever the merits of the individual victories, the Academy clearly had a predilection for crowning the latest damsel of the moment: rom-com heroines or former pin-up girls who went prestige, former child stars who were all grown up.
Film blogger and self-confessed "actressexual" Nathaniel Rogers of the indispensable site The Film Experience long ago crunched decades of numbers to reveal that Oscar has a real gender bias. In his very revealing "Charting Oscar's Age Preferences" from 2010, he points out (complete with charts and graphs) that Oscar loves to reward older veteran men, whereas it tends to reward dewy young things in the female categories. More than half of all female winners throughout history were below 35 years of age vs. only 14% of male winners!
Why does all this matter? Well, it goes to show the sorts of stories that the Oscars like to privilege. We don't see women in their 40's (the prime of life) winning because we get so few leading characters written in that age group. In recent years, if an actress doesn't win before age 40 she's much less likely ever to win -- because the meaty roles just aren't there. Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sigourney Weaver - what's the likelihood that any of these extraordinary women will get roles now that would win them a competitive Oscar?
And it goes without saying that the situation for older actresses of color is even worse. We'd trade our left arms to get Viola Davis and Angela Bassett the roles they deserve.
Yet another reason to feel nostalgia for the 90s a decade when, at least in prestige pictures, mature actresses got a slightly fairer shake than they do in the 21st century.
One final tidbit: the last two years seemed to hint at a reversal of sorts. The Best Actress slate from 2013 (Adams, Blanchett, Bullock, Dench, Streep) was trumpeted as "The Oldest in Academy History!" In fact, when Cate won for Blue Jasmine, that year's Best Actress and Best Actor winner (Matthew McConnaughey) were the same age (44). The following year, we had the absolutely shocking result of Julianne Moore (54) winning alongside Eddie Redmayne, who had once played her son!
With Saoirse Ronan and Brie Larson vying for the crown this year, we have a return to youngsters but with a crucial difference: both of these women carry their films like seasoned veterans. Let's hope that they don't fall into the career doldrums that befell their predecessors named Swank, Portman, Witherspoon etc. etc. waiting years for more roles post-win to sink their teeth into.
Stories about and starring women of all ages - and backgrounds - please. After all, "the world is round, people!!"