Will Oscar voters nominate Steve Carell for supporting instead of lead?

Sometime after the BAFTA nominations on Friday morning, I had a wild epiphany: Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher“) will be nominated for an Oscar, but it’ll be for Best Supporting Actor, not Best Actor. Am I crazy, or am I onto something?

Bennett Miller at NYFF: ‘Foxcatcher’ is a ‘funny’ story, ‘until it’s not’

“Foxcatcher” has shown some signs of strength in recent weeks – Best Picture nominations from the Golden Globes and the Producers Guild – but also some signs of weakness. The Critics Choice Awards snubbed the film in all categories save Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo) and Best Makeup/Hair, it missed a Best Ensemble nomination at the SAG Awards, and it scored just two nominations from BAFTA.

But those BAFTA nods could be crucial. It contends for Best Supporting Actor for Ruffalo … and Carell.

“Foxcatcher” is primarily Channing Tatum‘s movie. It’s told from the point of view of his character, Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, who feels overshadowed by his older brother David (Ruffalo) and then is manipulated by the sinister billionaire John du Pont (Carell) before the conflict builds to a tragedy.

Carell’s role is secondary, but this isn’t the first time a secondary role has been pushed in the lead category. Ethan Hawke was really the protagonist of “Training Day,” but he was nominated in the supporting race while Denzel Washington‘s extravagant villain performance was nominated (and won) in the lead race.

“The Last King of Scotland” was told from the point of view of James McAvoy as a young, impressionable physician, but it was Forest Whitaker‘s larger-than-life performance as charismatic dictator Idi Amin that won Best Actor.

“The Devil Wears Prada” is the story of Anne Hathaway trying to make it in the magazine biz, but of course Oscar queen Meryl Streep earned a Best Actress bid instead as her domineering boss.

Anthony Hopkins had scant screentime as serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” but he made such a strong impression that he won Best Actor anyway.

Channing Tatum wrestles with his painful role in ‘Foxcatcher’ (exclusive video)

Notice a pattern? Showy villain roles tend to be a better bet in the lead category, even when they’re not the centers of their stories, so it was a reasonable strategy to position Carell as a lead. Reportedly, “Foxcatcher” distributor Sony Pictures Classics also didn’t want Carell to compete against their other Supporting Actor contender, awards juggernaut J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash,” lest they risk what looks like a secure victory for Simmons.

But the problem for Carell now is that Best Actor has become inhospitably crowded, thanks to late surges by David Oyelowo (“Selma“), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler“), and Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel“). Carell is now fighting just to be nominated.

Luckily for him, there happens to be a huge vacancy in the Supporting Actor race. Most pundits would agree that four men are relatively secure for nominations: Simmons, Edward Norton (“Birdman“), Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood“), and Carell’s co-star Ruffalo. But who could take that fifth slot?

Yes, Robert Duvall (“The Judge“) was nominated by SAG, the Golden Globes, and Critics’ Choice. On paper, that makes him the obvious choice, but “The Judge” was ridiculed by critics, and it has virtually no chance in any other category at the Oscars. As beloved as Duvall is (he’s an Oscar-winner and six-time nominee), would academy members, inundated with year-end screeners and invitations, have even bothered watching the film just for him? In recent years, nominations in the top eight categories have gone to fewer and fewer films, which means voters are less likely go out of their way for fringe supporting candidates.

Oscar voters get DVD screeners: ‘Fury,’ ‘Foxcatcher,’ ‘Nightcrawler’ and …

Ditto Josh Brolin (“Inherent Vice“). He’s a previous Oscar-nominee for “Milk,” but the trippy “Vice” doesn’t seem like the academy’s cup of tea, and Brolin’s role, though memorable, is quite small.

Tom Wilkinson (“Selma“) looks good on paper, playing a real-life historical figure, President Lyndon Johnson, but “Selmahas had its own problems on the awards scene of late, and its depiction of Johnson has been a particular point of contention.

That gives the academy the opportunity to push Carell down into the supporting race to fill the gap and free up a slot on their Best Actor ballots. We can be sure most of them will have watched “Foxcatcher,” and he has gotten a lot of love from critics and the industry already.

It wouldn’t be the first time the academy ignored an awards campaign and made their own category decision. Keisha Castle-Hughes was pushed as a supporting actress in “Whale Rider” in 2003 because at that point no child actor had ever been nominated for a lead Oscar, but Castle-Hughes was obviously the lead actress in “Whale Rider,” so that’s where the academy put her.

Then in 2008, Kate Winslet was campaigned as a supporting actress in “The Reader” to keep from competing against her own unambiguously lead performance in “Revolutionary Road,” but the academy didn’t buy that either. They ignored her for “Road,” and awarded her Best Actress for “Reader.”

So there’s a certainly precedent for a sudden supporting swing for Carell, and now that we’ve seen it at BAFTA, the writing may be on the wall for Oscars.

Do you agree that Carell will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, or was BAFTA a fluke? Use our drag-and-drop menu below to make your predictions, or click here to predict all Oscar categories before nominations are announced this Thursday, January 15.

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