Judith Crist, film critic and journalism instructor, dies at 90

August 7, 2012

Judith Crist, a caustic, exacting, irreverent, sprightly and altogether formidable film critic and journalism instructor who influenced generations of reviewers and sent shivers through generations of filmmakers, died Aug. 7 at her home in New York. She was 90.

The death was confirmed by her daughter-in-law, Robin Foster-Crist. Mrs. Crist taught at Columbia University’s journalism school for more than 50 years and continued to lead classes in critical writing despite suffering a heart attack in 2002 and having contracted hepatitis C in 2005. Her immediate cause of death was not announced.

Mrs. Crist — Time magazine once said it “rhymes with hissed” — was one of the most admired and feared critics from the 1960s to the 1980s. The writer and director Billy Wilder quipped that “inviting her to review a movie was like inviting the Boston Strangler to give you a neck massage.”

In feisty manner and crisp prose, Mrs. Crist modeled herself on actress Bette Davis, whom she called the ideal of the “forceful woman with a cigarette in her hand.” Few critics surpassed Mrs. Crist in clout.

She began her movie-reviewing career in 1963 at the old New York Herald Tribune and achieved national stature by also working for TV Guide, which reached millions of subscribers, and NBC’s “Today” show.


Judith Crist, a caustic, exacting, irreverent, sprightly and altogether formidable film critic and journalism instructor who influenced generations of reviewers and sent shivers through generations of filmmakers, died Aug. 7 at her home in New York City. She was 90. (Photo by Thomas Victor)

Her byline also appeared in People, New York magazine, the Saturday Review and the Ladies’ Home Journal, among other major publications. From 1971 to 2006, she co-hosted weekend-long retreats in Tarrytown, N.Y., that drew thousands of people over the years to watch her interview Hollywood stars and filmmakers.

At Columbia’s journalism school, she was one of the most demanding and in-demand teachers. Many of her students became prominent arts critics, including David Denby of the New Yorker, Anna Kisselgoff and Margo Jefferson of the New York Times, and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times.

“She was outwardly motivated, where so many critics are inwardly motivated and are concerned just with their own thoughts,” Turan said. “She was about other generations, about this way of writing, showing other people how to do it. She created a legacy of critics whom she taught for decades. No one else did that.”

To succeed in criticism, Mrs. Crist once joked that the formula was simple: “Go to grad school, get work on a newspaper and, 18 years later, be at the right place at the right time.”

She certainly was. She spent nearly two decades as a reporter and editor at the New York Herald Tribune — working her way from the society desk to prize-winning education writer to arts editor — before being named film critic.

In an era when studio chiefs were friends of newspaper publishers, it was permissible to note an off-key performance or occasionally dismiss an entire film. But it was often professional suicide to write consistently eviscerating reviews that might endanger the advertising revenue pouring in from movie companies and theaters.

In a field of measured criticism, Mrs. Crist was a howitzer. She sought to puncture the dull, the pretentious and the bloated — anything that squandered talented performers and directors and would waste moviegoers’ time and money.

She gained infamy for one of her first Herald Tribune reviews, a smack down of “Spencer’s Mountain” (1963), a big-budget Easter release from Warner Bros. that starred Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. The film, she wrote, should be shunned for its “smirking sexuality, its glorification of the vulgar, its patronizing tone toward the humble.”

Warner Bros. and Radio City Music Hall, which was showing the movie, withdrew their advertising from the Herald Tribune. That sparked national news stories about attempts to muzzle Mrs. Crist, who was defended by the paper’s celebrated top editor, James Bellows.

Mrs. Crist did not relent going forward.

She denounced “The Sound of Music,” the multiple Oscar-winning 1965 musical starring Julie Andrews, as fit “for the 5-to-7 set and their mommies who think their kids aren’t up to the stinging sophistication and biting wit of ‘Mary Poppins.’ ”

She tore apart the costly 1963 epic “Cleopatra,” starring Elizabeth Taylor as the Egyptian queen and Richard Burton as Mark Antony.

“Even in their most dramatic moment,” she wrote, “when Cleopatra and Antony are slapping each other around in her tomb, one’s most immediate image is of Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton having it out in the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum.”

In her memorable phrase, the film was “a monumental mouse.”

As often as she disemboweled the dross, Mrs. Crist was an ardent champion of film craftsmen who, in her opinion, made movies that matter. They included Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack. She perceived their talent long before they made their best-known pictures, praising for example Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express” (1974) and Pollack’s “The Scalphunters” (1968). She was rewarded with a cameo in Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980).

The best films, she once told the Miami Herald, “tell you something you didn’t know before. They extend your vision, they enrich your soul. A good movie stretches your mind and emotions, tells you something about human beings and our world.”

She was also open to “delicious trash” — one of her favorite ­phrases, which she defined as “entertainment that works” but doesn’t seek to enlighten. In this category fell effective action thrillers such as Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979).

Mrs. Crist was not a mild person and less so on the subject of movies, which she professed to love “with a fanatic’s passion” since childhood.

She told interviewer Eve Berliner: “The greatest day of my life I cut school and went to see ‘Gone with the Wind’ at the Capitol for 25-cents, then across the street to the Rialto to see ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and down to 42nd Street for ‘Grand Illusion’ on Broadway. And there was still 75-cents left over to sustain us with an enormous chunk of many-layered whipped cream pie at Hector’s.”

Judith Klein was born May 22, 1922, in New York, where her father was a furrier. She said she became smitten with movies after seeing “The Gold Rush” (1925), the Charlie Chaplin silent comedy in which he performs a dinner-table ballet dance with forks and rolls and eats his shoelaces as if they were spaghetti.

She graduated from Hunter College in 1941 and received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1945.

In 1947, she married William Crist, a public relations consultant. He died in 1993. Survivors include a son, Steven Crist, publisher of the Daily Racing Form, of Hempstead, N.Y.

Mrs. Crist’s books included the column collection “The Private Eye, the Cowboy and the Very Naked Girl” (1968) and “Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking” (1984), based on her Tarrytown discourses.

Reflecting on her career, she told the Miami Herald, “It seemed to me that if I became a film reviewer, what was important was I’d see movies for free, on company time, during the day, which has an aura of sin about it, and — what’s a heaven for? — get paid for expressing an opinion.”

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