Two things we have to acknowledge right up front before we continue our first round of Oscar charts which will be finished by Saturday. Yay.
First. The supporting actor categories are often crazy foggy until people have seen the movies. Since men make up the bulk of film characters there is always a lot to choose from... even within the same film. Take Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Inherent Vice for example. I have yet to read the novel but literally every character in synopsis form sounds like a chance for actors to show off. That could result in a grandiose amount of overkill in scenery chewing for one film to handle- the acting equivalent of a rain of frogs, if you will. But it doesn't help us decipher which of the players will stand out. If you look at any of Anderson's early work -- the true ensembles before he started focusing on the journey of only one or two men (sigh) -- it was often hard to decide who was "best" because everyone was doing such strong work. I've gone with Josh Brolin as a prediction playing Joaquin Phoenix's old nemesis "Bigfoot" but it could just as easily be Benicio Del Toro as "Sauncho" or Owen Wilson as the musician "Coy Harlingen" or... well, you get the picture. The film has a huge cast.
Or it might be no one if the film is not well received. But the nominations for P.T.'s chilly weird The Master, not particularly "Oscar friendly" in the traditional sense, suggest that AMPAS is finally on this auteur's wavelength.
Second. There is no such thing as a line of demarcation between Lead and Supporting anymore. The two categories are fluid and mean nothing dissimilar at this point. It's like ten spots for men and ten spots for women. Period.
There are infinite ways to get away with category fraud in this day and age and the only time Oscar has ever rejected fraudulent campaigns is when a person leading the film has no other actor of stature around or of the same gender to pretend they are "supporting" them (Winslet in '08, Keisha in '03, etcetera). Otherwise they're always okay with it. Voters are especially forgiving of category fraud with male actors, perhaps subconciously reflecting heteronormative pack mentality -- some guy is always the alpha. So even if there is no way you can describe Fox (Collateral) in '04 or Affleck (Jesse James) in '07 as "supporting characters" without sane people laughing at you, that's okay with Oscar because in no stretch of the Hollywood imagination are Cruise and Pitt not alpha males. I think we can all agree on that.
Which brings us to Foxcatcher. Here, things are decidedly more fluid. Carell and Tatum and Ruffalo are not big enough stars to pretend that all other men in any given movie would be supporting them. Hell, Tatum even has second billing to Jonah Hill in the 21 Jump Street series which I find... strange. (Was it the Oscar nominations? Is it the deferrence to alpha order? Tatum led more films before they joined up). Early word is that Sony Pictures Classics will campaign both Tatum and Carell as leads and Ruffalo as supporting. Whether this holds or not is anyone's guess. In Contention posted a piece on how rare double lead nominations are and cited the statistics (not since 1984 for men and 1991 for women) and called it "obviously stiff odds" and that's true, factually. But it's not true spiritually. The article left out the extremely crucial fact that studios don't try to win dual lead nods anymore. Who is to say that we wouldn't have had examples of dual lead nods since then if they had kept campaigning truthfully as they used to do? Maybe voters should check themselves before demoting lead actors to supporting and ask themselves the relevant question "would I vote for them as a lead?" If the answer is "no" than maybe you shouldn't vote for them in supporting.