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Genius does not fade away

BAFTA: Down to the Wire 2013

Faced with a veteran horde of theatrical knights and dames in pics such as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Quartet,” BAFTA voters could be forgiven for wondering what happened to all the British actors under 60.

Apart from Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” a stripling at 54, most of the hometown contenders for this year’s acting prizes are well into their seventh or even eighth decade.

There are Maggie Smith in both “Marigold Hotel” and “Quartet”; Judi Dench in “Marigold” and “Skyfall”; Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins in “Hitchcock”; Ian McKellen in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”; Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins in “Quartet”; Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton in “Marigold”; and Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave in “Song for Marion.”

By a fluke of timing, there are few younger Brit thesps in this year’s race. Daniel Craig for “Skyfall,” Eddie Redmayne in “Les Miserables,” Jude Law in “Anna Karenina,” Andrea Riseborough in “Shadow Dancer” and perhaps BAFTA darling Helena Bonham Carter (“Les Miserables,” “Great Expectations” or “Dark Shadows”) are being mentioned the most in dispatches. Rachel Weisz won the New York Film Critics prize for “The Deep Blue Sea,” but that film qualified for last year’s BAFTAs, and Weisz was overlooked then anyway.

So how come so many legends of the British stage and screen are still competing so vigorously well past pensionable age? Perhaps their stage training taught them the stamina and technique to sustain their longevity. Or maybe it’s just that their early careers in the public theater or the BBC never earned them enough money to retire on.

Audiences certainly don’t want them to stop. The baby boomers who grew up with these actors still have an appetite to see them on the bigscreen, in stories which explore the comedies and tragedies of aging.

These British veterans are not alone. Octogenarian French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour” are strong kudos candidates this year, while Alan Arkin (“Argo”), Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field (“Lincoln”) plus Robert De Niro (“The Silver Lining’s Playbook”) are the most eye-catching contenders among the older Americans.

Working with older actors has its perils, however. “Marigold” screenwriter Ol Parker recalls the anxiety of waiting several months from greenlight to shooting, in case one of the film’s stars became incapable of making the grueling trip out to India. And as each actor arrived on set, after two plane journeys and a long taxi ride, the physical toll was so visible that Parker says he doubted they would get through the shoot in Indian conditions.

But they breed them tough at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theater. Even though memorizing lines can be challenging for older actors, Parker was delighted to discover that they are exceptionally respectful of the script, down to the last comma.

“One of the many great things about writing for that cast is that they are so theater-based, they try and learn the lines exactly as they are written,” Parker says.

BAFTA has always loved to celebrate the work of veteran British actors, but it may not get many more chances to honor such perennial favorites as Smith and Dench. Dench first blipped on BAFTA’s radar in 1966, when she was named most promising newcomer, while Smith was nominated for the same award back in 1959.

But Smith is always ruthless about quashing any hint of sentiment, as Parker recalls from a memorable conversation with the great dame on the set of “Marigold.” She asked him who had been his first choice for her role as the racist Cockney Jean. “You, of course,” Parker replied.

“No, really,” said Smith, “you can tell me, who did you really write this for?” “You,” insisted Parker.

Smith fixed him her best Dowager Duchess stare and said, “So why didn’t you write me a better fucking part?”

Given such magnificence, can BAFTA voters resist the temptation to hear her acceptance speech?

BAFTA: Down to the Wire 2013
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