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Film critic Judith Crist dies at 90
Question of the Day
NEW YORK — Judith Crist, a blunt and popular film critic for the “Today” show, TV Guide and the New York Herald Tribune whose reviews were at times so harsh that director Otto Preminger labeled her “Judas Crist,” has died. She was 90.
Her son, Steven Crist, said his mother died Tuesday at her Manhattan home after a long illness.
Starting in 1963, at the Tribune, Crist wrote about and discussed thousands of movies, and also covered theater and books. She was among the first reviewers of her time to gain a national following, and Roger Ebert credited her with helping to make all film critics better known, including such contemporaries as The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice.
With the growing recognition of such foreign directors as Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini, and the rise of such American filmmakers as Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the 1960s and 1970s were an inspiring time for movie reviewers. But Crist’s trademark quickly became the putdown.
An early review was for “Spencer’s Mountain,” a sentimental family melodrama starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara. Unmoved by a story that became the basis for the TV series “The Waltons,”Crist denounced the film’s “sheer prurience and perverted morality” and cracked that “it makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions.”
The critic really poured it on for “Cleopatra,” the budget-busting historical epic that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and was overwhelmed by the actors’ off-screen love affair. “At best a major disappointment, at worst an extravagant exercise in tedium,” Crist called the film, dismissing Taylor as “an entirely physical creature, no depth of emotion apparent in her kohl-laden eyes, no modulation in her voice, which too often rises to fishwife levels.”
Her conclusion: “The mountain of notoriety has produced a mouse.”
Crist was occasionally banned from advance screenings, while studios and theaters would threaten to pull advertising. When her “Cleopatra” review brought her a prize from the New York Newspaper Women's Club, officials at 20th Century Fox, which released the movie, withdrew from the ceremony.
Preminger, whose “Hurry Sundown” she called the “worst film” she had seen in memory, referred to her as “Judas Crist.” After she condemned Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing classic “Some Like It Hot” for its “perverse” gags and “homosexual ‘in’ joke(s),” Wilder allegedly remarked that asking her to review your movie was like “asking the Boston strangler to massage your neck.”
But Crist had many friends in the business, from Bette Davis to “Cleopatra” director Joseph Mankiewicz. She ran a film festival for decades out of suburban Tarrytown, N.Y., with guests including Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steven Spielberg. Woody Allen liked her well enough to give her a cameo in his 1980 drama “Stardust Memories,” widely believed to have been based in part on Crist’s Tarrytown gatherings.
She was born in New York in 1922 and would say that Charlie Chaplin’s silent masterpiece “The Gold Rush” was her first and most vivid film memory. By age 10, she had decided she wanted to be a reviewer; movies became her passion and her vice. She would cut classes for a chance to visit a theater or two, including a cherished day in which she took in showings of “Gone With the Wind,” ”The Grapes of Wrath” and “Grand Illusion.”
Her edge was likely formed by her Dickensian childhood. The daughter of a successful fur trader, she lived in Canada until age 9, attending private school, enjoying the luxuries of multiple homes, live-in servants and the family’s bulletproof Cadillac. But in the 1930s, her father’s business was ruined by the Great Depression.
“And then suddenly, our most gracious home was gone. The servants left,” she wrote years later in Time magazine. “After we lost the last of our homes, we moved to New York to get some kind of assistance from my mother’s family. Well, from both of my parents’ families. We lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment while my father went out on the road, recouping things.”
She still managed to attend Hunter College and receive a master’s degree from Columbia University’s journalism school. In 1945, soon after graduation, she was hired as a feature writer by the Herald Tribune, where she remained until the paper closed, in 1966, and where colleagues included Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe. In 1950, her education reporting brought her a George Polk Award, and she was honored five times by the New York Newspaper Woman’s Club.
Crist reviewed film and theater for the “Today” show from 1964-73, and as a print critic worked for New York magazine, TV Guide and the New York Post. She was a longtime adjunct professor at Columbia and her essays, interviews and reviews have been compiled into three books: “The Private Eye, The Cowboy and the Very Naked Girl,” ”Judith Crist’s TV Guide to the Movies” and “Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking.”
By Matt Kibbe
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