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Pull It Sir

The Pulitzer At 100, Released by First Run Features, Directed by Kirk Simon —

For the past century, some of the very best American artists—writers of plays, novels and poems, newspaper journalists and their editors, photographers, composers and even cartoonists–have been awarded the prestigious annual Pulitzer Prize. It is a notable achievement to win a Pulitzer, a recognized public tribute for outstanding work; judges for this honor have been criticized when finalists deemed worthy were overlooked. It’s too bad that TV news readers, who usually mention a couple of each April’s winners, cannot learn to correctly pronounce the name of the prize. It is not “PEW-lit-zer.” The man whose very generous bequest created the award suggested the simple mnemonic phrase “pull it, sir” as the way to say his name.

Kirk Simon, a past winner of easier-to-pronounce awards like Oscar and Emmy, is the director of an absorbing new documentary entitled “The Pulitzer At 100.” Released by First Run Features, the ninety-minute, independent film is a melange of newspaper headlines sliding across the screen, actors reading excerpts from novels and poems, memorable if often brutal photographs of wars and floods, dust covers of important books, musicians discussing fellow composers who didn’t win the prize , and scores of other “talking heads.” Recent winners discuss their feelings on getting the Pulitzer, their work methods, the editors who helped shape their stories or the lucky chance of being in the right place at the right time to snap a photo that becomes legendary.

“The Pulitzer At 100” is a great-looking documentary, featuring clear, beautifully- lit interviews with all participants. The sheer number of speakers, a biography of namesake Joseph Pulitzer and an overall survey of ten decades of American art and history is a lot to squeeze into an hour and a half. But director Simon made, for this viewer, the right decision in collating and presenting his material; he does not show us the story in historical time-line fashion. Rather, we go backwards and forwards, transitioning from a present-day novel to a Twenties short story to Carl Bernstein on his Watergate coverage in the 1970s to Wynton Marsalis and John Adams discussing composers who should have won a Pulitzer, like Duke Ellington and John Cage.

Even the truly extraordinary life of Pulitzer—an immigrant who volunteered in the U.S. civil war, bought a “penny newspaper” and created the first tabloid, battled fellow publisher William Randolph Hearst for readers, became rich and famous, then left his fortune to Columbia University to teach and promote journalism and reward the best of its practitioners–is told in bits and pieces throughout the film. Somehow, it all works and makes for a satisfying whole. The documentary, after whetting our appetites, should inspire viewers to pursue even more info about the rich variety of persons and topics it covers.

Current writers give wonderful, brief insights into their lives and how the Pulitzer changed them. Michael Cunningham, who won the Fiction prize for his novel “The Hours” in 1997, is honest and wry in his comments. Tracy K. Smith, who received 2012’s Poetry award for “Life on Mars”, is happy to be on the short list of African-American women honorees. Junot Diaz, Fiction winner in 2008 for “The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao”, is funny and frank about the small club he’s now part of.   Two gay writers, each a Drama winner—Paula Vogel for 1998’s “How I Learned To Drive” and Tony Kushner for 1993’s “Angels in America”—give delightful interviews. (Vogel got a phone call from her friend and fellow Pulitzer winner Edward Albee after her win and asked him “What do I do now?” Albee said “Roll up your sleeves and start writing the next play.”)

Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911 and the first award given by his foundation was in 1917. The prize-winning books , plays and collections of poetry, from WW I to the present day, offer a cross-section of American life and letters. Early nods went to Booth Tarkington (“Magnificent Ambersons”), Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Sinclair Lewis, Margaret Mitchell (“Gone With the Wind”), John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck (“The Good Earth”), Herman Wouk (“The Caine Mutiny”), Robert Penn Warren , James A. Michener (“Tales of the South Pacific”), Hemingway, Faulkner, James Agee, Harper Lee, Katherine Anne Porter, John Updike, Cheever, Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Larry McMurtry, E. Annie Proulx and Robert Caro. Among playwrights, Eugene O’Neil won four Pulitzers. Fellow winners include Marc Connelly, Maxwell Anderson, Robert Sherwood, “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, “You Can’t Take It With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the Gershwin brothers, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Neil Simon, August Wilson, Horton Foote, David Mamet, Hamlisch, Sondheim, James Patrick Shanley, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the late Sam Shepard.  Editorial cartoonists Paul Conrad and Bill Mauldin both won two or three times.

We only get glances at some of the above-named people in “The Pulitzer At 100” because there is simply too much material to cover. Happily, however, some famous actors and actresses read excellent, brief snippets from winning novels and plays: Helen Mirren (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), John Lithgow (a Robert Frost poem), Liev Schreiber (“Grapes of Wrath”), Yara Shahidi (“To Kill A Mockingbird”), even Martin Scorsese and Natalie Portman.

Finally, the documentary presents far more than writers with the luxury of months or years to create a work; we meet everyday journalists, men and women who write on a deadline for daily newspapers and weekly magazines. Staffers from the New York Times (Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Sheri Fink), The New Yorker (David Remnick), The Washington Post (Carol Leonnig), and The Los Angeles Times (Mary McNamara) are all deserving winners, as are their news organizations.

Joseph Pulitzer successfully established higher standards for journalism, first at Columbia University in New York and later, throughout the country. “The Pulitzer At 100” gives us a look at the remarkable life of Pulitzer, which almost reads like fiction, as well as the history of the prize given in his name.

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