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.
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.