In a confusing year, lines blur between lead and support roles

In “Mulholland Drive,” fresh-scrubbed heroine Betty goes through a major identity crisis. But that’s nothing compared to the what-am-I? dilemma for the actress who plays her, Naomi Watts.

The British-born Aussie-raised thesp seems to be playing a quintessential American, though the character is ID’d as Canadian. That’s dizzying enough, but another switch occurred behind the scenes: Watts started out being pushed for supporting actress. But now the ads promote her for consideration as best actress.

Similarly, Ian McKellen used to be an actor Oscar contender in ads for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”; now he’s being touted for supporting actor.

Confusion isn’t confined to the acting categories. For years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Producers Guild of America have wrestled over who deserves the producer title, and the picture award. In some of the technical categories too debates sometimes rage over who deserves the sound effects editing or visual f/x noms.

Still, there’s nothing quite so fluid as the actor definition: You’re either the cinematographer or you’re not. But thanks to a number of developments, the line between lead actor and supporting has blurred. And when it comes to award categories, there usually are sound reasons for these switches.

“An Oscar campaign is a process,” says Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing at New Line. “Early on, we decided to push Ian McKellen for best actor, but, even though his performance was singled out, the press and the public responded to the movie as more of an ensemble piece. We then felt the supporting consideration was more appropriate. Ian agreed.”

Watts and McKellen aren’t the only ones. On Jan. 5, the National Society of Film Critics and AFI Awards 2001, respectively saluted Gene Hackman as actor and featured actor for “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

In the old days, the studios were built on star systems. Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Greta Garbo were leads, no two ways about it. But the business has changed, and the distinction between lead and supporting actor is much vaguer.

Muddying the race these days are actors’ choices (Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson are major stars, but sometimes take supporting roles).

Another confusing factor: ensemble movies. That term encompasses everything from “California Suite” to “Pulp Fiction” to any Robert Altman film. Last year’s “Traffic,” for example, was an ensemble piece. For his performance in that film, Benicio Del Toro took home the best actor nod from the Screen Actors Guild and the supporting trophy at the Oscars.

Studios ultimately can make a decision whether to push the actor as lead or supporting — but they get plenty of feedback from the thesp and his/her reps. And often it depends on the marketplace: Which race has less competition?

Sometimes the definition depends on screen time and/or script focus (even though “American Beauty” was a quasi-ensemble, there’s no question that Kevin Spacey was the lead).

“In “Fargo,” Frances McDormand won the Oscar as actress, even though she was onscreen less than William H. Macy, a nominee in the supporting race.

Sometimes it’s star power: That’s why back in 1972 Marlon Brando was considered the lead in “The Godfather” while the little-known Al Pacino, with more screen time, was a supporting thesp.

But critics, kudos groups and Academy voters have minds of their own. In 1981, Susan Sarandon was being promoted for supporting actress for “Atlantic City.” She was nominated — but as lead actress.

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