by Bill Monson

Like millions of Americans I watched the Academy Awards Sunday night to see what Hollywood thought was the best picture of the year.

I say ''what Hollywood thought'' because sometimes what Hollywood picks isn't always the favorite of American movie-goers -- or history.

I frankly admit I didn't care for ''American Beauty.'' Although the movie was well-acted and slickly made, I found its characters unappealing, even repellent. The rock should never have been turned over to let these creatures crawl out.

But Hollywood has always had a fascination with disreputable characters when it comes to choosing Best Picture. Who can forget Captain Bligh in 1935's ''Mutiny on the Bounty'' or Scarlett O'Hara in 1929's ''Gone with the Wind''? The writer-drunk in ''The Lost Weekend'' (1945) wasn't very nice either, nor was Willy Stark in ''All the King's Men'' (1949).

There were several nasties in ''All About Eve'' (1950) and ''From Here to Eternity'' (1953), but they also had characters you could root for without feeling morally compromised.

''On the Waterfront'' (1954) gave us Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy, the punch-drunk pug who works for a corrupt union, but at least he tried to reform himself. The ambiguities of World War Two collaboration were nicely explored in ''The Bridge on the River Kwai'' (1957) even though the real bridge wasn't destroyed in real life like it was in the movie.

As the 60s arrived, Hollywood introduced more and more morally questionable leading characters -- like Jack Lemmon's office pimp in ''The Apartment'' (1960) and the New York hustlers in ''Midnight Cowboy'' (1969) -- the first and only X-rated film to win Best Picture.

George Patton was both good and bad in ''Patton'' (1970), but the lead characters in ''The Godfather'' (1972), ''The Sting'' (1973) and ''The Godfather 2'' (1974) were all criminals -- however fascinatingly portrayed. The Corleones were murderers, but the body count didn't stop them from winning director Francis Ford Coppola the gold.

''Rocky'' (1976) was about a strong-arm collector for a loan shark, but palooka Balboa managed to redeem himself. Salieri in ''Amadeus'' (1984) never did, and the film made Mozart into a talented swine.

Only when he's humiliated by communists does the corrupt, hedonistic ''Last Emperor'' (1987) find his eventual spiritual renewal. In ''Rain Man'' (1988), the brother played by Tom Cruise wasn't particularly admirable, but at least he, too, began to change. In 1991's ''The Silence of the Lambs,'' Hannibal Lector's evil is balanced by Clarissa Starling's good, but the film is still a pretty distasteful depiction of the world of serial killers. A real hard R. In ''Unforgiven'' (1992), everyone's on the wrong side of the law -- from Clint Eastwood's killer Will Munny to Gene Hackman's corrupt sheriff. Oscar Schindler is a hero in ''Schindler's List'' (1993) but a perverted kind of one. ''The English Patient'' (1996) isn't English and he's a Nazi spy.

Since then, our heroes have been more heroic -- although Shakespeare does have his flaws in ''Shakespeare in Love'' (1998). But we already knew from high school English class that he borrowed all his plots, right?

With this long history of ''Best Pictures'' about questionable characters, I guess it's not surprising that Hollywood (or at least the 5,607 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) returned to the practice with ''American Beauty.'' But I sure wish they'd make more films with people I could root for -- like ''The Straight Story.''

Bill Monson is an author and critic whose observations on his native Galesburg and the world will appear occasionally in these pages.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online March 28, 2000

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