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Originally published Sunday, February 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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They can thank the stage, then thank the Academy

You would never mistake them for women of 30, or 40, or even 50. Their faces tell so many stories. They bear tracks left by the laughter...

Seattle Times theater critic

You would never mistake them for women of 30, or 40, or even 50.

Their faces tell so many stories. They bear tracks left by the laughter, the sorrows, the stresses that "flesh is heir to." Their skin crinkles in some spots, and it sags in others.

Yet such masterful older actresses as Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren (now in their late 50s to early 70s) keep working in major roles and are still radiant beauties.

If these grand thespians have had cosmetic surgery, it isn't the radical kind that stretches, pulls and varnishes one's visage, obliterating the visible marks of a life fully lived.

Their faces are still their own, and they can express a world of emotion with an arch of a brow, the set of a jaw, a creasing frown.

Wait a minute! Hasn't Hollywood decreed female stars passé when they're no longer too thin, too blond, too taut — basically, too young?

If so, somebody forgot to notify the Academy. Dench is nominated for best-female performance this year for her superb work as a dowdy, manipulative older teacher in "Notes on a Scandal." Streep is one of Dench's rivals for the same prize, thanks to her delicious portrayal of an imperious veteran fashionista in "The Devil Wears Prada."

And favored for this Oscar over these class acts (and younger nominees Penélope Cruz and Kate Winslet) is Mirren, who in "The Queen" plays Elizabeth II, a plain-Jane English monarch who likely has never had a date with a syringeful of Botox.

These seasoned thesps, and such peers as Redgrave (wrinkled and wonderful in "Venus"), Chita Rivera (frisky and fab in her musical, "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life," coming this week to the Paramount Theatre) and Smith (starring soon in Edward Albee's "The Lady From Dubuque" in London), are having some mighty lustrous "golden years."

So what's their secret? Why aren't they stuck, like so many other performers who haven't had a lot of "work done," with brief film and TV cameos, granny roles and late-night, denture-cream infomercials?

Good genes, good health and great cheekbones. Also luck and pluck. And more female producers and screenwriters in the film industry, and millions of baby boomer females heading into movie theaters and subscribing to Netflix.

But there is one not-so-secret fountain of eternal youth for great actresses. And it's not a surgeon's office.

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It is the theater — also known fondly, in the acting biz, as "Doctor Theater."

For stage-honed movie stars, a run in a play in Broadway, in London, or a good regional theater can be as revitalizing as a month at a spa — and as invigorating as a year of hard-core gym visits.

The rigor and discipline of a seven-shows-a-week regime keep actors' muscles (physical and creative) in shape. The interplay with a live audience keeps one's reflexes toned, and the applause stokes the confidence.

And remember: In the theater, birth date and facial wrinkles are less important than, well, talent.

Sure, sure, esteemed and older male actors have juicier roles to choose from in classic scripts. But for our most lionized actresses, there's still much to choose from in dramatic literature.

In the past year, Dench cavorted with the Royal Shakespeare Company as the randy barkeep Mistress Quickly in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Streep braved the outdoor Delacorte Theate in Central Park to play the haggard lead character in Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage."

Next month, Redgrave returns to Broadway in a new solo play based on "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion's best-selling memoir about becoming a widow.

And though she's had her hands full with film and TV projects, Mirren made time to star in London in a 2003 National Theatre production of "Mourning Becomes Electra" by Eugene O'Neill.

For Mirren and company, the days of playing Juliet or other Shakespeare ingénues are probably over — though in the theater, experiments with "nontraditional" casting are far more prevalent than in Hollywood.

And sex, romance and angst are not strictly the province of the young on stage — as they aren't in life. Particularly in Britain, national pride in a long-prized theatrical culture allows the most admired and fortunate leading ladies to sustain robust, multifaceted careers well into their 70s, even their 80s.

In fact, would these stars shine as brightly as they do today if they hadn't trained in the theater and remained a vital part of it?

Not according to Mirren and Dench, who recently joined with other British Oscar nominees to protest proposed government funding cuts for England's theaters.

"The huge success of recent British films like 'The Queen' would not have been possible without the many wonderful actors who have become as good as they are through long experience in the theater," Mirren said. "I'm sure it won't be long before I'm back on the stage."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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