Scorsese pic’s Oscar four-play

'Departed' does the splits with ensemble cast

As the kudos campaign season kicks into high gear, the most unconventional campaign so far belongs to Warner Bros.’ “The Departed” — namely very little campaign at all.

Despite carrying the pedigree of Martin Scorsese, “Departed” was largely off the awards season radar even after it opened Oct. 6. But strong aud reaction led Oscar watchers to tip “Departed” as a leading contender for best picture, as well as performance awards for actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg.

The surprise is that Warners has largely eschewed the wave of screenings, filmmaker Q&As and parties typically used to tout contending titles.

Part of this self-restraint comes from Scorsese himself: After (unsuccessfully) slogging through kudos campaigns for his last two films, “The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York,” the helmer told Warners he doesn’t want a full-blown campaign for “Departed.” (He also has a Rolling Stones docu to keep himself busy.)

Working under those constraints, Warners has taken a wait-and-see approach about how to position the film, choosing to follow early kudo bellwethers like critics’ groups and other awards orgs.

But the low-key approach has led to early confusion among awards voters, most notably on which thesp is in a lead role and which is a supporting actor.

While the drama in the film largely revolves between the parallel lives of Damon and DiCaprio’s characters, Warners has remained mum on whether the studio will tout them in the lead category. But it has decided to push Nicholson in the supporting category. In recent awards campaign materials it has simply referred to the four as “The Actors.”

The Academy allows its voters to nominate actors in whatever category they see fit. But voters usually take their cues from studio-supplied materials. For “The Last King of Scotland,” for instance, Fox Searchlight has urged voters to consider Forest Whitaker‘s turn as Idi Amin as a lead role and James McAvoy‘s young doctor in the supporting category.

But other awards work differently. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. makes its own classification of who’s a lead and who’s supporting for Golden Globes purposes, and it recently deemed DiCaprio and Damon the leads of “The Departed.”

The Screen Actors Guild leaves it up to the actors themselves to decide which category they want to be submitted in. Those forms were due several weeks ago, but are confidential.

Sometimes the HFPA differs from the Oscars.

For her “Chicago” perf, Catherine Zeta-Jones was nominated as a lead actress for the Golden Globes, but went on to win the Oscar and SAG Award in the supporting category.

Warners will likely begin showing its hand soon, because if it doesn’t, Oscar voters might split their votes for the actors between the lead and supporting categories, leading to no Academy noms at all.