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.’ ”