Judith Crist, the tough, witty, and often caustic film critic who combined a passionate love for movies with an equally passionate distaste for movie rubbish, died Tuesday, August 7 at the age of 90. According to her son, Steven Crist, she died at her Manhattan home after a long illness.
Director Billy Wilder once remarked that inviting Crist to review one of your films was “like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage.” And Wilder was one of her favorites. She was arguably the most powerful film critic of her era because of her two-prong status as main reviewer at both the New York Herald Tribune and NBC’s “Today” show.
Never afraid to take on the movie establishment, she famously described “Cleopatra,” 20th Century Fox’s mega-million-dollar 1963 catastrophe, as “At best, a major disappointment, at worst an extravagant exercise in tedium. The mountain of notoriety has produced a mouse.”
She called “The Sound of Music” (1965) “Icky-sticky” and dared to complain that “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) was “a kind of dime-store holy picture.” And of Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown” (1967), she wrote, “To say that ‘Hurry Sundown’ is the worst film of the still-young year is to belittle it. It stands with the worst films of any number of years.” When that review won a prize, Preminger sent a telegram to be read at the awards dinner, “Congratulations on your night of triumph from the man without whom all this would not be possible.”
Yet, in reviewing Robert Altman’s version of Raymond Chandler’s novel “The Long Goodbye” (1973), Crist was sweeping in the opposite direction. “The buccaneers have been making the Hollywood headlines recently what with the dismantling, absorbing and swapping of studios,” she wrote, “but it’s the adventurers, the creative risk-takers and myth-breakers, who provide the life’s blood of our movie experience.”
She praised Altman as one of those risk-takers and was an early partisan of directors Sydney Pollack and Woody Allen and of Steven Spielberg from the time of his first movie, “The Sugarland Express.”
Crist was the first female full-time film critic at any major newspaper, and it took her nearly 20 years to go from a woman’s page reporter at the Herald Tribune in 1945 to film critic in 1963. Six weeks later she demolished “Spencer’s Mountain,” starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara with: “A film that for sheer prurience and perverted morality disguised as piety makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions.” Radio City Music Hall pulled its advertising from the paper. The paper stood behind its critic.Judith Klein was born in New York on May 22, 1922, then moved with her family to Montreal. Her father, Solomon Klein, a jeweler and furrier, lost his business in the Depression and became a traveling salesman to support the family which returned to New York when Crist was 12. After Hunter College, she did graduate work in 18th century English literature at Columbia and eventually graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Later, she was an adjunct professor there from 1958 until last February. Her marriage of 47 years to William B. Crist, a public-relations executive, ended with his death in 1993.
She fell in love with the movies when she saw Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” (1925) she told interviewer Eve Berliner five years ago. “Eating his shoelaces as if they were spaghetti, tipping the cabin at the edge of the precipice.”
In that same interview, at the age of 85, Crist told 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!”
Crist is survived by her son Steven, formerly the horse racing reporter for the New York Times and, since 1998, the publisher of Daily Racing Form. On the Racing Form’s website, Crist said that the family was planning a private funeral and will announce a date for a memorial service to be held next month.