“It is essential for the good of criticism that both the critic and the public face the fact that a review is not the voice of God.” — Judith Crist, 1968
While recently preparing a post on vintage reviews of “Jaws,” I found one in an issue of New York Magazine dated June 23rd, 1975 written by Judith Crist, a critic whose name I knew, but whose work I did not. The article, “Fish Story on a Grand Scale,” was one of the best from the period — perceptive and very clever (“[The film works] to such horrifying effect, that you’re bound to suspect that producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown were secretly financed by the Swimming Pool Manufacturers of America.”). Some critics didn’t get “Jaws” the first time around. Crist did.
Sadly, Crist passed away today at the age of 90. Her New York Times obituary paints a vivid picture of a long and influential career in journalism. In addition to her work at New York, Crist reviewed films for The New York Herald Tribune and The Today Show, where she was the program’s first regular film critic. She also launched her own film festival in Tarrytown, New York (it was the inspiration for the setting of Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”) and taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for over 50 years. On her enduring popularity, from her Times obit:
“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.”
In an interesting reversal of many critics’ job aspirations and career trajectories, television was Crist’s stepping stone to newspapers and magazines, not the other way around. She began reviewing movies on local TV during the newspaper strike of 1962. After the strike ended, she moved from Arts Editor to film critic. Six weeks later, she wrote a review of “Spencer’s Mountain” so scathing the film’s distributor threatened to pull their advertising from the Herald Tribune (the paper back Crist and the studio eventually relented). The next month, she filed another infamously damning critique, this one of Elizabeth Taylor’s “Cleopatra,” cementing her reputation and national readership.
Crist’s best work predates the Internet by many years, so a lot of her criticism isn’t readily available online. Though it’s slow work, you can search through vintage New Yorks on Google Books — where I found Crist’s take on “The Godfather” (“You can’t say the trash doesn’t get first-class treatment. But the prophylaxis is the shame of it all.”) and “Sleeper” (“Small doubt that with ‘Sleeper’ Woody Allen comes into his own as a filmmaker,”). It’s a time-consuming process — but more than worth the effort for gems like this one, summarizing a review of the Italian sex comedy “Homo Eroticus:” “If I have made this sound interesting, forgive me.”
In a 1997 article called “The Critical Years,” Crist shared her personal history in the world of criticism. A self-described “movie-nut from childhood,” Crist had dreamed since the age of 10 of becoming a critic like her idols James Agee, Otis Ferguson, and Frank Nugent. “My concept of the job was simple,” she writes. “Seeing every movie made, seeing it for free (no more nickel-and-dime thievery) and on company time (was that work?) and, wonder of wonders, getting paid for expressing an opinion. What, indeed, was a heaven for?”
In the video below, Crist reflects back on her career in criticism and teaching on the occasion of her 90th birthday earlier this year. She may have insisted that hers was not the voice of God, but her work was often divine.