Forget the cliche. Crime pays at least in show business, where a fictional prison stretch can rehabilitate a career or even be redeemed for an Oscar. Just look at the rap sheet of three of 1998's Best Actor nominees. Edward Norton grabbed his nomination for playing a jail-bound bigot in the new-to-video American History X; among Nick Nolte's strongest '80s roles was the playwright prisoner in Weeds; and Roberto Benigni who ultimately won for a different sort of inmate had his first big crossover success in 1986 as the comic jailbird of Down by Law.
It's easy to see why Norton wanted to play the loathsome skinhead Derek in Tony Kaye's incendiary morality tale it's exactly the sort of unlikable role serious young actors love and Hollywood would loathe if not for the villainous hero's life-affirming transformation. That's why the picture's prison sequence is so crucial. The 25-minute black-and-white flashback begins with Norton waking up in Chino, angry and uncowed; it concludes with him leaving three years later a remade man. His pain has led to progress; the brutal penitentiary has played its corrective role. And both the star and the studio have gotten what they wanted.
Prison time, though, hasn't accomplished this change alone. Although the movie suggests that the impetus for Derek's conversion is that he's shocked, shocked to discover that his white-power pals deal drugs, that explanation feels pat. No, the real reason is far more emotional, and as old as the creakiest Joan Crawford movie: Derek is redeemed because he meets a Nice Guy.
Which is the other great penitentiary cliche the prison film as coded love story. By compartmentalizing prison sex in an ugly gang rape, the film can be passionately pure elsewhere about male bonding. It's all subtext, but why else, after meeting the gentle Lamont (Guy Torry) on laundry duty, would the racist Derek turn his life around, return to the streets, reject the ''chicken hawk'' exploitation of his fascist mentor (Stacy Keach), even dump his butch girlfriend (Fairuza Balk)? He's finally met a real man and he's black.
Although these Love That Dare Not Speak Its Serial Number stories are prison-movie mainstays Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as the comfy couple in The Shawshank Redemption, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as the querulous old marrieds of Papillon they're absent from John Hancock's Weeds. That's because the movie, like its earnest main character, is looking for a more straightforward story of salvation, and its plot, about a prison playwright, Lee (Nolte), who lets his fellow inmates express themselves through the theater, holds out the grace of redemption. Too bad that Lee, whom Nolte plays with such conviction, is so rank an amateur that he offers an angst-ridden Everyman and has his convict cast speaking in ridiculous French accents. (All right, Lee later admits he stole some stuff from Jean Genet.) But his revised production is even worse, with prisoners belting out Melissa Etheridge's ''Body Search.'' Weeds is a Jack Henry Abbott and Lou Costello farce that doesn't know it's funny.
Better is the intentional comedy of Jim Jarmusch's ''Down by Law,'' courtesy of the indefatigable Benigni. Although Tom Waits and John Lurie are the official deadpan, dead-hip stars here, it's their joyful Italian cell mate who steals the movie (while possibly borrowing a few ideas for his eventual ''Life Is Beautiful'') and becomes a hero. For, as Benigni insists early on, ''I ham-a no criminal. I ham-a good egg.'' And a good egg he remains, smoothing over his fellow cons' arguments, leading them on a muddy escape through the bayou, and then with eternal Benigni optimism sending them on their separate ways. Yes, as Benigni observes, it ''is a sad and beautiful world'' but always one worthy of your most delirious hopes.
To real criminals, of course, 30-years-to-life is not beautiful. They know that prison is more likely to teach them new sins than to make them repent old ones, and that their release depends on the whims of a parole board, not the arrival of a comic cell mate. But as long as prison stripes can be traded for Oscar-night evening wear, actors will still go inside.