HOLLYWOOD -- For people who do not follow the continuing corporate soap opera behind Hollywood, the movies "The Last Emperor," "Hope and Glory" and "Leonard Part 6" would seem worlds apart.

One is about a Chinese emperor whose life is an irrelevancy of 20th century nobility. One is about a 7-year-old boy who is having a pretty good time during the blitz of World War II London. And one is about a retired superspy who saves the world from possessed barnyard animals.

The first two films are critical thoroughbreds, masterpieces by some critics' reckoning. The third is a $20 million disaster, a thudding critical and commercial embarrassment. What links them is their American distributor, Columbia Pictures, and the ghost of its chairman past, David Puttnam.

People who were enchanted by the controversial Puttnam want to credit him with "Hope and Glory" and "The Last Emperor." People alienated want to blame him for "Leonard Part 6." The truth is that Puttnam is not responsible for any of them.

When the British producer arrived at Columbia in 1986, Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" was already in production, and he merely acquired it for distribution. The money for John Boorman's "Hope and Glory" was committed by the parent Coca-Cola Co. The negotiations for "Leonard Part 6," from an idea by its producer and star Bill Cosby, had been concluded by interim Columbia boss Steve Sohmers.

But whether he bought or inherited them, Puttnam's name is bound to all three. "The Last Emperor" and "Hope and Glory," which reflect his tastes, are clear road markers that show the direction in which he had hoped to head the studio.

The first is an old-fashioned epic, a feast of images and cultural intrigue that immediately takes its place among the great spectacles in film. The second is a dramatized collection of childhood memories, an impression piece that comes alive as a visual novel. They are singular stories, told with great craftsmanship and without compromise. They are story vehicles, as opposed to star vehicles, and the fact that they are being distributed at all by a major studio flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

That wisdom, on the other hand, does explain "Leonard Part 6." Here is a movie made simply because Cosby finally relented to one of his suitors. Most of the major studios had been serenading him ever since "The Cosby Show" hit No. 1 on the Nielsen charts. Rational people outside the business might wonder why a studio would spend $20 million on a movie starring a person who can be seen free on TV. Still, the opportunity to test Cosby's box office appeal was more than Sohmers could resist.

There was nothing more to the Cosby deal than a story idea and a commitment from the comic to produce the film and to play the title role. It was an almost perfect example of the "shooting deals instead of movies" thinking that Puttnam had criticized. Yet, in a burst of illogical rookie enthusiasm, Puttnam confused the Cosby deal with the Cosby show and, in his first official press statement as studio chief, proclaimed that the movie signifies what "Columbia will be all about, entertainment with a heart and a mind."

What it really was was a bad omen. If rumor has it correctly, it was Cosby, more than anyone else, who caused Puttnam to be forced out at Columbia. The star reportedly went to Coke during postproduction squabbles over "Leonard Part 6" and, depending on who is telling the story, either added one more grievance to the stack in Puttnam's file, or insisted that the British upstart be given the sack.

Puttnam said recently that he only met Cosby twice and there had been no direct confrontations. The Cosby camp has steadfastly refused to comment.

Cosby, in a moment that must have caught Columbia's marketing people short, went on Larry King's CNN show two weeks before the movie opened and calmly advised his fans not to buy a ticket. The movie arrived DOA at more than 1,100 theaters Dec. 18. That it may have taken Puttnam down with it is one of '87's choice ironies.

Last week, "Hope and Glory" executive producer Jake Eberts said he was afraid that the studio was not promoting his film because it had a Puttnam label on it when it, in fact, had not been put into production by Puttnam.

If Columbia's new administration was withholding Academy Award support for "Hope and Glory" because it was perceived as a "Puttnam picture," the awards for best picture, best director and best screenplay that it won from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association have forced the issue.

"The awards did jolt them into a little action," said director John Boorman. "They now have quite an expensive campaign coming." He said Columbia is preparing to spend $35,000 on a mailer that it will send to academy members, reminding them of the critics' awards, and there will be a major advertising campaign in the trade newspapers Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

"There had been some money allocated {for an Oscar campaign}, so I wouldn't say it was exactly reluctance. We just couldn't get them to make a commitment. It is inevitable when new management comes in that they are not particularly interested in what the last management did. We were afraid we were getting caught up in that."

How much advertising support its upcoming wide release gets seems to depend largely on how well it does with Oscar nominations. The Los Angeles critics have apparently enhanced its chances.