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A Pulitzer Prize For Film?

May 04, 1986|SHEILA BENSON

There may be even more fallout from what one writer has already called the Pulitzer Prize Follies of 1986, in which no play was found worthy of the prize for drama. Apparently, the jurors in the drama division, when asked to come up with a second choice, discussed Woody Allen's screenplay of "Hannah and Her Sisters," and submitted the question to the Pulitzer board of whether there shouldn't be some way to honor film scripts."

Their suggestion was rejected, but the idea has been like one of those Japanese water flowers, which open and blossom slowly. Why, indeed, shouldn't the Pulitzers look at cinema as prizeworthy? How can they, for example, award a prize for distinguished criticism to a film critic (as they did to Roger Ebert in 1975) while rejecting the field itself?

For almost 70 years, since the prizes were created by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, these awards have honored work that is distinctly American. We can't quite claim to have invented cinema, but we certainly diapered it, nurtured it, watched it stand on wobbly feet, grow, mature and become a business and, not incidentally, an art that is quintessentially American.

Perhaps in 1917, the flickers didn't seem worthy of the Pulitzers' idealistic aims, but those unsteady black-and-white images have changed almost beyond the dream of anyone who saw them then. (Not every Pulitzer Prize-winning play has stood the test of time, either--not even its own time, as Dan Sullivan points out in his own commentary, Page 2.) What the Pulitzer for drama requires is "a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing in American life."

Well, American life, I strongly suspect, has been defined for more of us by our image on the screen than by any single book or play ever written. A prize for the screenplay that best presents a facet of the American landscape would seem entirely reasonable. Had we had Pulitzers for film before, perhaps they would have gone to sure varied American portraits as "Citizen Kane," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "On the Waterfront," "The Apartment" "All About Eve," "Sunset Boulevard," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Coming Home," "Days of Heaven," "Norma Rae," "The Deer Hunter," "Tender Mercies," "Chinatown," "Places in the Heart" and, most certainly, "Hannah and Her Sisters," to skim off the top of what might be a substantial and provocative list (and a great party diversion).

Many of these films are from a golden and now very dead era; the system and the men under whom they were made have virtually disappeared. Where are our screenwriters now? Is this really the time to clamor for serious recognition--when the state of American film as it extrudes from the Hollywood machine is at its lowest and most mortifying ebb? When repertory theaters--the repositories of our movie past--are shutting left and right, killing the very way film should be seen so that it can be regarded as an art form, not as some commercial-less variant of television?

We have to remember one thing: Hollywood movies and American film have not been synonymous for some time. The doughty American independent film, beleagured but unbowed, and certain film makers strong enough to work autonymously within the studio system (or forge their own mini-companies) have become a real force in film today. You suspect it's these men and women who would be inspired by the existence of a Pulitzer; that the thought of "Pulitzer Prize Winner" on a movie's pedigree forever might be just the spur that moved a difficult project forward.

I know that creating a new film category wouldn't be a simple matter. In this most collaborative of arts, the question of the "authorship" of a film comes up immediately; whether it's most shaped by its director or writer (or producer, for that matter). In the theater, the award goes to the author. The play may have a long life, a dozen casts, as many directors, a run in high school drama departments as long as "Our Town's"--the honor goes to its writer. A movie is a movie is a movie. Not likely to be made again. Stamped for all time by one cast, one director, one viewpoint, one vision.

Still, I think you can argue for an award to its screenplay. Add whatever elegances you will of camerawork, production design, direction, acting, editing--without a great screenplay you can't have a great film.

Don't the Academy Awards serve the same purpose, or the multitudinous critics' awards, or the yearly list from the National Board of Review? Not in the way the focus of the Pulitzers would. The point of film Pulitzers would be to bring thoughtfulness back to a view of America.

Not utter seriousness, certainly not blind nationalism--thoughtfulness and a range of films as diverse as Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise;" a more comfortably financed gem like Robert Benton's "Places in the Heart," or almost any of Woody Allen's stringently personal, warmly funny visions of contemporary America, "Hannah and Her Sisters," included.

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