Alec Baldwin

The Cooler

As casino heavy Shelly Kaplow in Lions Gate’s “The Cooler,” Alec Baldwin abuses employees, puts a lounge singer out of his drug-induced misery and even kicks a pregnant woman. Obviously, Kaplow is not the sweetest man in the pit, but Baldwin gives him a juicy twist of demented charm.

And it’s paid off. Baldwin has already won a supporting actor nod from the National Board of Review.

But he has never been nominated for an Oscar, so it seems fitting that his first nod may very well come for a role perfectly suited for him; if ever there were an actor needed for an intense, chain-smoking, gravel-voiced money grub, Baldwin’s the man.

Like Joe Pesci did in his Academy Award-winning turn as Tommy DeVito in “GoodFellas,” Baldwin takes a genre cutout and injects him with violent tendencies and scary charisma.

Pic is also a textbook example of how a tiny indie can bring more recognition than $100 million tentpoles; Baldwin’s latest pics have included “The Cat in the Hat” and “Pearl Harbor” and voice work for “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Cats & Dogs” and “Final Fantasy.”

But it’s director Wayne Kramer’s 30-day shoot in Reno that might turn Baldwin’s feature career around.

“The budget for ‘The Cooler’ was the budget for Altoids in ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ says Baldwin. “But indie film is usually about one person’s vision, and I totally bought into his creativity. He overwhelmed me with his passion.”

As proof of that passion, the South African helmer waged quite the battle with the MPAA over its initial NC-17 rating.

As for inspiration, Baldwin leaned toward the usual suspects.

“We were stuck in a hotel for the entire shoot and, since I’m not a gambler, I had very little to do,” he says. “Reno is full of gaming and strip clubs. That’s why I rented a VCR and watched ‘Casino.’ ”

Coming attractions: “Along Came Polly,” “The Last Shot,” “The Aviator,” “Simply Halston”

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