Director: George Clooney
Actor: Sam Rockwell
Supporting actress: Drew Barrymore
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production design: James Bissell

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences often smiles on well-liked thesps who do good work behind the camera. Usually, best pic wins come for B.O.-busting blood-sweat-and-tears epics (Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”) but smaller indie work by actors has caught the Oscar spotlight (Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” got two noms and an adapted screenplay win).

This is the space that George Clooney could find himself in if his directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” fills theaters when it opens via Miramax at the end of the month. If it catches on with auds, Clooney could be a multiple contender this year with his own film as well as with Fox’s “Solaris.”

Pic is based on Chuck Barris’ cult “unauthorized autobiography,” wherein the gameshow creator claims to have been a CIA hitman during the time that he rose to fame as a TV producer and host of “The Gong Show.”

Clooney came aboard as director after producer Andrew Lazar, who had optioned Barris’ book, encountered several false starts with other helmers. The newly minted hyphenate no doubt took some pointers from producing partner Steven Soderbergh (yellow-tinted Mexican scenes seem a direct homage to “Traffic”), but Clooney can take ample credit for piecing together a pic that evokes empathy for a main character whose story is tricky to tell.

Much credit must go to scribe Charlie Kaufman, who managed to give shape to the quirky material. Kaufman, who got an Oscar nom for “Being John Malkovich” in 2000, could again be among the contenders this year. He’s also in the running with Sony’s “Adaptation.”

Sam Rockwell, as Barris, could get Acad attention for taking his character from comic bravura to despair and back several times. Supporting perfs in the surrealistic CIA sequences by Julia Roberts (as a sexy international operative), Rutger Hauer (as Barris’ scary Teutonic mentor, agent Keeler) and Clooney (as a laconic CIA recruiter) might be too outre to garner serious attention, but Drew Barrymore could be singled out for her perf as Barris’ loyal g.f., Penny.

Lensing by Newton Thomas Sigel, who shot Clooney starrer “Three Kings,” is innovative and could get some notice, as could the work of production designer James D. Bissell for bringing the well-known gameshow sets back to life.

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