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And the Pulitzer goes to . . .

The movies are 100 years old in 1997, and the Pulitzer Prizes are 70. This would be a good time for them to get together. In addition to the journalism categories, Pulitzers are awarded in the areas of music, drama and literature - but they never have been given to the movies, where they might actually have a greater influence.

The Tonys, Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, National Book Awards and Obies are all insider prizes, run by the industries they honor. The Pulitzers always have stood outside and a little above, convening panels of independent experts to look for the best work in a field without regard for popularity, sales or sentiment.

A Pulitzer Prize for film would presumably go to the kind of good film that doesn't often get nominated for an Oscar. It would not be inhibited, as the Oscars are, by a tendency to select films that reflect favorably on the industry. It would consider documentaries and made-for-TV movies, as well as theatrical-release films.

This year, for example, Pulitzer candidates might include a film like "In the Company of Men," with its searing portrait of male corporate culture. Or Spike Lee's "4 Little Girls," a documentary about the Birmingham church bombing. Or the feature film "Gattaca," about a fearsome new world of genetic discrimination. Or "Eve's Bayou," a Louisiana child's rich and tragic family memory. Or the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," which offers a revisionist portrait of what happened in the Branch Davidian siege. Or "George Wallace," the made-for-cable biography of the troubling politician.

The Pulitzer's board members meet in New York on Nov. 3 to consider changes in the prizes. Surprisingly, it will be the first time they have seriously considered adding movies, according to Kristen McCary of Hollywood Hills, Calif., who is leading a campaign for the change.

One tricky question they're sure to discuss is: Who would the Pulitzer Prize for best film go to? The Pulitzer in drama goes to the playwright, not the production. The Pulitzers in music go to the composers, not the conductors or recording artists. Literature prizes, of course, go to the authors - but who is the author of a film?

That question has occupied the movie industry almost since its inception. The Oscar for best film is presented to a film's producer, in keeping with the Hollywood tradition that studios and producers are the only true begetters. The top prizes at film festivals are generally accepted by the directors, in keeping with the ascendant auteur theory, which holds that the director is the ultimate author of a film. But French critics first proposed the auteur theory because in France until the late 1950s, the screenwriter was considered the true author. And in the case of the adaptation of a great work of literature - the 1996 "Hamlet," say - who is more the author? William Shakespeare, or Kenneth Branagh? Do not answer too hastily; Branagh won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of "Hamlet," even though he proudly filmed Shakespeare's uncut text.

Movies are children with many parents. It is impossible to untangle the contributions of a film's collaborators - also including the actors, cinematographer, editor, composer, set designer and special-effects artists. It is obvious, I think, that Pulitzer judges should consider only the excellence of a film, and not get involved in sorting out its pedigree. The Pulitzer for film should be awarded to the film itself, period, end of discussion.

What practical good would the Pulitzer Prize for film be? Would it be just one more award? Not at all. The Pulitzers are seen as more informed and disinterested than the honors given within each art form. They are the most prestigious awards in America. The annual debate over Pulitzer "finalists" would draw attention to many worthy films. The prize-winner would be booked into more theaters and win a larger audience, and its life on television and on video would be greatly enhanced.

The American film industry today straddles a great divide. On the one side are the multimillion-dollar blockbusters, the thrillers and special-effects pictures. On the other, the renaissance in the world of independent and alternative films. The Oscars will usually be tilted toward the mainstream films - and above all toward successful films; it is easier for a film to pass through the eye of a needle than for a box-office flop to win the Oscar.

The Pulitzers might help restore the balance between success and quality - might even act as an inspiration or a rebuke for the Oscar voters. It's time for America's most important honor in the arts to be extended to America's most important contribution to the arts.

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