Judith Crist, influential film critic, dies at 90



Judith Crist, one of America’s most widely read film critics for more than three decades and a provocative presence in millions of homes as a regular reviewer on the “Today” show, died Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Steven.

Ms. Crist came to prominence at a time when film was breaking with the conventions of the Hollywood studio era while experiencing a resurgence in popularity, much of it fueled by baby boomers. She championed a new generation of American directors like Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack and Woody Allen and new actors like Robert De Niro and Faye Dunaway.

Her commentary had many homes: The New York Herald Tribune, where she was the first woman to be made a full-time critic for a major American newspaper; New York magazine, where she was the founding film critic; and TV Guide, which most defined her to readers. Her reviews appeared there for 22 years at a time when the magazine blanketed the country, reaching a peak readership of more than 20 million.

She was the “Today” show’s first regular movie critic, a morning fixture on NBC from 1963 to 1973. And she wrote for Saturday Review, Gourmet and Ladies’ Home Journal.

A Harris Poll of moviegoers in the 1960s cited her as their favorite critic. In 1968, Film Quarterly called her “the American critic with the widest impact on the mass audience.” When TV Guide decided to dismiss her in 1983 to replace her column with a computerized movie summary, executives told her they might come crawling back to her in six months to beg her to return. The magazine was deluged with letters, and asked her back three weeks later. She was given a raise and stayed until 1988.

Her zingers could be withering. In March 1965, she panned three major releases in a single “Today” appearance: “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (“A kind of dime-store holy picture”), “Lord Jim” (“A lot of heavy five-cent philosophy”) and “The Sound of Music” (“Icky-sticky”).

Reviewing Anne Bancroft’s performance as a troubled wife in the 1964 film “The Pumpkin Eater,” Ms. Crist wrote in The Herald Tribune, “She seems a cowlike creature with no aspirations or intellect above her pelvis.” Of “The Sound of Music,” a box-office smash in 1965 and one of the most popular films of all time, she said, “The movie is for the 5-to-7 set and their mommies who think the kids aren’t up to the stinging sophistication and biting wit of ‘Mary Poppins.’ ” She kicked up storms almost immediately after the paper made her its movie critic in 1963. Six weeks after her appointment, her scathing review of “Spencer’s Mountain,” starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, caused Warner Brothers and Radio City Music Hall, where the film was shown, to briefly withdraw their advertising. Despite the possibility of losing thousands of dollars, The Herald Tribune’s publisher stood behind her. The ads soon returned.

Her put-down of “Cleopatra” the next month as a “monumental mouse” added to her notoriety. There were threats, soon forgotten, to ban her from screenings.

The critic Roger Ebert told The Chicago Tribune in 1999 that the movie industry’s retaliation for her commentary “led to every newspaper in the country saying, ‘Hey, we ought to get a real movie critic.’ ”

Ms. Crist eschewed pretension, but never explanation. Though she had disagreements with Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, she generally avoided the kind of intellectual dueling that Ms. Kael engaged in with Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice. Her job, she said, was to expand on the “Wow!” or the “Yuck!” a moviegoer might utter on leaving the theater. The author and editor Richard R. Lingeman, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1968, said her “level of discourse” was more that of Consumer Reports than of Partisan Review.

Her enthusiasm for film cut across all genres. In a 1985 interview with The Christian Science Monitor, she insisted that a true movie fan takes James Bond as seriously as “the grand auteurism of Bergman.”

Yet many of her largest bouquets went to the most individualistic of directors, auteurs like Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and David Lean. Her American favorites included Stanley Kubrick, Mel Brooks, John Cassavetes and Robert Altman.

Her enthusiasm for some films was not always shared by other critics. Many questioned her list of the 10 best films of all time, which included Mr. Spielberg’s first feature, “Sugarland Express,” a 1974 prison-escape story in which a fleeing couple become folk heroes, and Mr. Pollack’s early film “The Scalphunters” (1968), a Western comedy.

Her knife could cut both ways. In reviewing “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” Stanley Kubrick’s satirical 1964 masterpiece, she called Kubrick a “boy genius.” But four years later she said his film “2001: A Space Odyssey” would be “pithy and potent” — if it were cut in half.

Ms. Crist’s acidity provoked the director Billy Wilder to say, “Inviting her to review one of your pictures is like inviting the Boston Strangler to massage your neck.”

Judith Klein was born in Manhattan on May 22, 1922. Her family moved to Montreal when she was an infant, and she spent her first 12 years there before moving back to New York.

Her father, Solomon Klein, had business interests in furs and jewelry but lost everything in the Depression. He became a traveling salesmen and invented things, including a dry-cleaning machine, according to an essay she wrote in Time magazine in 2008. Her mother, the former Helen Schoenberg, was a librarian and translator Ms. Crist was 5 when she saw her first movie, “7th Heaven,” a silent film with an Oscar-winning performance by Janet Gaynor. But she became a “movie nut,” she said, when she saw Charlie Chaplin’s “Gold Rush” (1925). She began sneaking out to the movies, telling her mother that she was swimming at the Y or studying at the library. And she began reading about them; an early influence, she said, was James Agee’s film criticism for The Nation.

Ms. Crist said she might have made Phi Beta Kappa at Hunter College in Manhattan had she not cut class so many times to go to the movies.

She went on to do graduate work in 18th-century English literature at Columbia, teach at Washington State University, become a civilian English instructor for the Air Force and attend the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, graduating in 1945.

Her first job at The Herald Tribune was assistant to the women’s editor. After becoming a general-assignment reporter, she won a George Polk Award in 1951 for her education coverage.

She saw her first “blue” movie as the only woman covering Senate hearings on pornography in New York in 1945. Her male colleagues insisted that she leave the room during their private screening of the film in question, “Breaking In Blondie.” The unbuttoning scene was just beginning when she had to leave.

Her pocketbook gave her an advantage, however, while covering a news conference for a new Marilyn Monroe film. When Monroe broke a shoulder strap, Ms. Crist supplied her with a safety pin and was granted an exclusive interview.

She began writing theater reviews in 1957 while continuing to cover news. Three years later she became arts editor. During a newspaper strike in 1963 she reviewed theater and movies for WABC. Her aptitude for the medium was noticed by the Today show producers who later hired her. After the strike’s end, and after meeting with The Tribune’s editor, James Bellows, and publisher, John Hay Whitney (known as Jock), she became The Tribune’s movie critic on April 1, 1963. She wrote that she was immediately “famous” six weeks later for her “Spencer’s Mountain” review, which described the film as “sheer prurience and perverted morality disguised as piety.”

When the film’s producer and theater threatened advertisement cuts, The Herald Tribune stood firmly behind her on First Amendment grounds. In an editorial, it said that any paper that can be controlled by advertisers “cheats its readers and ceases to be an honest newspaper.”

As movies veered toward more explicit sexuality, she could be critical.

“I’m tired of bare breasts, buttocks and bellies,” she said in an interview with Newsweek in 1967. “I’m not a bluenose, but this penchant for flesh is moronic and unhealthy. It’s a big shill.”

Ms. Crist, who taught at the Columbia journalism school for more than 50 years, continuing until this February, also held a small festival in Tarrytown, N.Y. It began in 1971 and included appearances by famous directors and actors, as well as showings of still-unreleased movies. Woody Allen modeled his fictional film festival after it in “Stardust Memories.” She ended it in 2006.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Ms. Crist reviewed films for Coming Attractions magazine. She continued to write on other topics, including an article on TV dinners for Gourmet magazine in 2000..

Ms. Crist published a collection of reviews, “The Private Eye, the Cowboy, and the Very Naked Girl: Movies From Cleo to Clyde” (1968) and edited, designed or contributed to several more books.

She is survived by her son. Her husband, William B. Crist, a public relations counselor, died in 1993.

Ms. Crist said a critic must be an egomaniac. But she went on to say a larger job requirement was passion, perhaps even love, for what movies are, do and can be.

“Amid all the easily loved darlings of Charlie Brown’s circle, obstreperous Lucy holds a special place in my heart,” she said. “She fusses and fumes and she carps and complains. That’s because Lucy cares. And it’s the caring that counts.”

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