One of the very smartest makers of American comic dramas, Alexander Payne, was born on this day in 1961. A Greek American, he was born Constantine Alexander Payne (his family’s name was earlier changed to Payne from Papadopoulos) and grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, a locale that he has used several times in his own films. Payne seemingly was not always on course for a career in the movies as at Stanford he studied Spanish and History, however he later attended film school at UCLA, graduating in 1990. Payne found ways to pay the rent in the early 1990s by writing and directing episodes of Inside Out, Playboy TV’s series of one-off dramas, and in 1996 made his feature debut with the Laura Dern-starrer Citizen Ruth in 1996, an intelligent, sardonic tale of a drug addict who inadvertently becomes a cause célèbre. Co-written by Payne with writing partner Jim Taylor, the film was only made a modest impact but got enough attention to allow Payne to subsequently make Election (1999), a razor-sharp parody of the American political system using a high school as a microcosm of society, which was a critical and box office success. Since then, though, Payne has sadly only made two films in the intervening decade: About Schmidt (2002), the poignant dramedy about Jack Nicholson’s titular widower, and Sideways (2004), the wine-drenched road movie starring Paul Giamatti. Those two films, however, have both been big indie heavyweights which have drawn strong reviews, performed well at the box office and have been major Oscar movies which have strengthened Payne’s already formidable reputation. Currently, Payne is slated to direct an adaptation of Denis Hamill’s novel Fork in the Road about a young Irish-American filmmaker who falls in love in Dublin.