By Jeff Labrecque
Updated November 16, 2011 at 05:07 PM EST
Alexander Payne
Credit: Eric Charbonneau/

Back in 2005, George Clooney was nominated for three Academy Awards — for supporting acting in Syriana (he won) and for writing and directing Good Night, and Good Luck (he lost). This year, he’s a potential contender in multiple categories and dueling films again, juggling manifold duties in his Ides of March and starring in The Descendants, which had its Hollywood premiere last night. He’s a favorite to earn an Oscar nominee for his leading role as a Hawaiian attorney who stumbles on the fact that his now-comatose wife was cheating on him. But what might turn out to be a more interesting subplot to the Oscar season is if the film’s director, Alexander Payne, competes against Clooney for Best Director.

Despite not directing a feature film in seven years, Payne remains one of the most sought-after “actors’ directors,” based on films like Election and About Schmidt, movies that find poignant humor in heartbreaking circumstances. In fact, Clooney had lobbied Payne to be in his last film, 2004’s Sideways, putting the director in the unusual position of telling the star that he was essentially too famous to play the handsome womanizer ultimately played by Thomas Haden Church. “I said, ‘To ask the audience to believe one of the world’s most handsome and successful movie stars is now playing one of the world’s biggest loser actors is too much. That would become the joke of the film,” Payne told EW at the time. “And he was cool with that.”

Apparently, Clooney has become more persuasive since then… or he’s let himself go physically to the extent that Payne thinks audiences are now ready to buy him as a cuckold. Clooney would probably joke that it’s a little of both. And he seems humbled by the possibility of being recognized in the same directors class as Payne, saying at the premiere, “He’s one of the best directors in the business. He was four-for-four before this one and now I think he’s five-for-five. Everything you hope for is true. He’s nice. He’s talented. He’s funny.”

Beau Bridges, who plays Clooney’s character’s cousin in the film, agrees. “[Payne] comes in with a strong vision. He does his homework. I think he really enjoys what he’s doing, and his joy is contagious. He’s a soft-spoken man and is very economical with what he talks to the actors about. I thought he was great.”

This film’s Thomas Haden Church, who went from Wings to Best Supporting Actor nominee, might be Matthew Lillard, the actor best known for Scream and Scooby-Doo. In Descendants, he plays the Other Man sleeping with George Clooney’s wife. “Hollywood is keen on making you be what they want you to be, but Alexander allowed me to dig into the other part of me,” the 40-year old says. “He didn’t judge me on other things I had done. He sees you for the actor who walks in the room and allows you the room to create and find the part. He’s one of the greatest filmmakers of modern day.”

Feels like Clooney might have to settle for a Best Actor Oscar this time around.

(Reporting by Carrie Bell)

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