SAG Preview 2011

Today’s top-flight actors are aging with a vengeance. A remarkable number of A-list stars are setting aside romantic comedies and glamour to take on the serious roles — and serious special effects make up — while courting award recognition in the bargain.

It seems like only yesterday that George Clooney both took pulses and made them race on “ER,” or Gary Oldman seared the bigscreen as rocker Sid Vicious. Leonardo DiCaprio was the kid below decks on the “Titanic,” while studly young Brad Pitt was getting in between Thelma and Louise.

All of a sudden, Clooney’s daughters are growing up as his marriage is shutting down in “The Descendants.” Oldman is the gray, gaunt Cold War spymaster of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Pitt shifts shape into two very different brands of dad — cool (“Moneyball”) and abusive (“The Tree of Life”) — while DiCaprio fights the crimes of a century to take “J. Edgar” right up to the ripe old age of 77.

On the distaff side, 34 years after Meryl Streep wowed film audiences as the fluttery titular heroine of 1977’s “Julia,” she’s a convincing octogenarian as “The Iron Lady.” In 1987, Glenn Close caught Michael Douglas in the web of a “Fatal Attraction”; now she’s a chilly, aging, cross-dressing butler in “Albert Nobbs.”

Erstwhile ingenues are putting up gripping portrayals of gutsy women who have been through the wringer: Michelle Williams as a sorrowful star in tragic decline in “My Week With Marilyn”; Charlize Theron as a former prom queen fiercely bent on redeeming her past in “Young Adult”; Keira Knightley as a tormented mental patient destined to become a renowned psychoanalyst herself once she’s gone through “A Dangerous Method.”

Naturally, thesps at both ends of the age spectrum will always be heard from during awards season. Honors may be in the cards for newcomers Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Ezra Miller (“We Have to Talk About Kevin”), as well as for the venerable Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”) and Max Von Sydow (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”).

Also causing a stir are some not-so-baby faces who this year offered up breakthrough work: Jean Dujardin capturing the magic of silent cinema in “The Artist”; Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer glowing in “The Help”; Michael Fassbender fighting sex addition while feeling the deepest “Shame.”

But on the evidence of 2011, there’s nothing like a little mileage to turn raw youth into a contender. In 2007 Jonah Hill was wreaking hard-drinking, dirty-dancing havoc at a high school party in “Superbad.” Put a few years and a decent suit on him, and bam! Instant award talk for “Moneyball.”

A little seasoning can turn a flavor of the month into a taste for all times.

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