It's hard to discuss the Oscar chances of the cast of Carnage without thinking of all four fuming co-leads as being yet more hamsters on the Academy's wheel (a hamster, after all, ends up being one of the sharper elements of Roman Polanski's latest). Such is not to say, necessarily, that Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz took their roles with a mind for rewards beyond the artistic (this is no blatantly baity project), but any decent thespian who signs on for an upper-middlebrow movie bound for release between October and January surely knows he's tossing himself into a repetitive race for largely-unattainable gold. Carnage is a curious specimen in terms of Oscar probability. It has an enviable batch of top talents, and it's attractively sophisticated, yet it bucks norms of even the talking-room subgenre in which it's classified. Without seeing a frame of it, one might rightfully assume the film would go the way of Doubt, with all members of its actorly quartet clinching nominations for reinterpreting their stage-originated roles, but that likely won't happen here. The already-crowded fields notwithstanding, con can match pro in the case of each performer.
A perpetual nominee of near-Streepian default, Winslet ostensibly has the surest shot, and since Contagion is far from consideration, the '08 Best Actress's turn as the up-chucking Nancy Cowan will present the Academy with its only chance to honor one of its faves. Winslet has the advantage of providing the film's final impression of unbound, childish rage. Next to a ringing phone, her tipsy eruption is the last thing we see amid the parental sparring, and voters are likely to remember how well she nails her choice lines, easily some of the text's most fiery (don't get her started on human rights). But even with the profane and the provocative ultimately pouring from her lips, Winslet's Nancy may still prove too demure for the Academy's liking, especially in a year when the caricatural stylings of Octavia Spencer made the Help actress a done-deal from minute one.
More than anything, if Winslet were to crack the Supporting Actress five (assuming Carnage takes the Friends route of “everyone supports”), she'd probably have Oscar afterglow to thank, as the Academy loves to validate its choices and perpetuate its short-term memory by re-congratulating those it recently welcomed to the Kodak. That's certainly the best thing Waltz has going for him, and it's perfectly plausible for him to once again land in your Supporting Actor lineup. A virtual nobody before 2009, Waltz is just the kind of newly sought-after player whose career boost the Academy would thrill in taking credit for, and two noms in three years would make for a fine back-pat. But like Nancy, Waltz's Alan Cowan is also predominantly un-showy, his sideline sadism almost missable in its slyness. Vying for a slot in what's shaped up to be a very packed category (with many contenders, like Albert Brooks, Nick Nolte and Christopher Plummer wielding past-their-due power), Waltz would have had to at least done some Oscar-clippy screaming to ensure getting noticed.
That's where John C. Reilly has the edge, as unlike Alan, Reilly's Michael Longstreet goes apeshit on multiple occasions. Of the four actors, Reilly initially seems the most obviously cast, playing the same mood-smoothing schlub he's embodied in countless indies. But his performance turns out to have the most satisfying (and hilarious) arc, as there's no better sinful joy to be found in Carnage than the boisterous, monstrous unmasking of the only character who initially seemed innocent. No stranger to the Academy's good graces (he earned a nod for Chicago in 2002), Reilly has the added boosts of being ubiquitous, widely liked, and extremely reliable, and here, he steps outside his usual box of character decorum. Like Waltz, though, he's looking at an uphill climb, one that's already being more ably tackled by other hopefuls like Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) and Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method).
If there's one Carnage actor whose work is most obviously Oscar-ready, it's Foster, whose shrill and hysterical Penelope Longstreet is a walking clip reel. Definitely the hammiest of the bunch, Foster might as well have worked “look at me!” into Penelope's rants, and look at her many voters surely will, if only because the two-time Best Actress has never been quite so animated. But does it all result in too much attention? At the first New York Film Festival screening of Carnage, Foster easily scored the most laughs, but humor has a way of diminishing serious consideration, and it's not like Foster didn't already meet mixed results in that very regard earlier this year with The Beaver. The necessary industry love just doesn't seem present, which ultimately makes Foster a kindred spirit with her Director. If last year's universal raves for The Ghost Writer weren't enough to get Polanski nomination attention, then something so minimalistic as Carnage isn't likely to do the trick either. A more probable outcome would be recognition for the film's Screenplay, a feast of barbed wit and far-reaching implications that Polanski and Yasmina Reza co-adapted from Reza's famous play. If the Academy were truly savvy, they'd single out Pawel Edelman for the endless angles of his Cinematography, and Alexandre Desplat for his sprightly, John-Williams-evoking Score, which, though only serving as a set of musical bookends, is among the year's most memorable.
What may very well end up happening with Carnage this season is an arrival at a dead end just after the all-but-inevitable showing at the Golden Globes. When it comes to Oscar, it's very possible that everyone involved with this movie will wind up like its oft-mentioned rodent: left out in the cold.
Surest bets: Best Supporting Actress, Kate Winslet; Best Adapted Screenplay, Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actor, John C. Reilly; Best Supporting Actor, Christoph Waltz.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: Best Cinematography, Pawel Edelman; Best Original Score, Alexandre Desplat.