Film critic Judith Crist dies at 90; had a sharp wit


Judith Crist, who blazed a trail as the first full-time female film critic at a major U.S. newspaper and went on to become widely known to cinema lovers through her movie reviews in TV Guide magazine and on the “Today” show, died Tuesday at age 90.

Crist cared deeply about her readers and criticism in general, which lead her to teach at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism until just several months ago. Like any critic worth remembering, Crist was a fearless writer and had eclectic tastes and interests.

Six weeks after being named a film critic for the New York Herald Tribune, Crist made a name for herself, less for what she wrote about 1963’s “Spencer’s Mountain” than for the reaction her notice generated. Christ recounted the incident in a 1997 speech:


I wrote a scathing review of “Spencer’s Mountain,” starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, for the daily and an equally vicious rehash thereof for Sunday, this time damning Radio City Music Hall for showing as its youth-oriented Easter attraction this film “that for sheer prurience and perverted morality disguised as piety makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions.” On Monday Warner Bros. barred me from its screenings (by telegram, yet) and it and the Music Hall withdrew their advertising, which amounted to thousands upon thousands a year. Was I fired — or moved elsewhere in the paper? The Herald Tribune … simply ran an editorial decrying my nemeses as childish and declaring that the Tribune’s critic, right or wrong, had the right of free speech.

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Her review of 1967’s “Hurry Sundown” was awarded the New York Newspaper Women’s Club Award for Criticism. Like some of her notices, it had more than its share of hyperbole, but didn’t pull any punches:

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.

In 1973, writing in the Atlantic, Crist reconsidered 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” which she said was “undoubtedly still the best and most durable piece of popular entertainment to have come off the Hollywood assembly lines”:

“And therefore there’s generational nostalgia, recall of an adolescent wonder at the opulence of cinematic magic (how the liberal-intellectual critics of that day scorned the $4-million cost and the publicity attendant on the star selection -- while in our critical day we scarce batted an eye at Cleopatra’s $40 million and its star shenanigans!), scorn of today’s lack of glamour and superstars (and who’s around to beat the Gable-Leigh-Howard-de Havilland combo, with a supporting cast that would merit stardom in today’s talent-scarce market?), and wonderment at the relative realism of character amid the mush-mouth Southernisms and Civil War Weltschmerzisms. All that glows. But so does the film, because it’s the stuff our movie dreams were made on -- and mighty durable stuff it proves to be.”


In 1991, Crist wrote a piece in the Chicago Sun-Times, complaining that the tobacco police were turning her cigarette habit into a nearly criminal act:

Whoever or whatever is to blame, I’ve been a smoker for more than half a century. It’s my choice and my pleasure. And now -- so slowly and surely that it seems suddenly -- my pleasure has become a social vice and I find myself a member of an oppressed minority, our rights disregarded, our employment at issue, our privacy invaded… So far there are no Surgeon General’s warnings on candy bar wrapping, ice cream cartons or butter packages about the health hazards of fat and cholesterol -- but we take our pleasures and we make our choices.... Since awareness of the hazards of smoking came to the fore in the ‘60s, the percentage of the smokers in the over-18 population has gone from 45 to 25. All to the good. But let’s continue the campaign with respect for each other’s “privacy and personal autonomy,” as the ACLU terms it. After all, whose life is it anyway?

In 1965, in the Los Angeles Times, Crist wrote about coming to Hollywood to look at the filmmaking process at the invitation of studio press agents.

Conclusions aren’t arrived at quickly and solutions are elusive. But it is made so clear so quickly that no one really starts out to make a bad movie, that we can puzzle primarily over the things that happen en route to make so many movies end up that way. And then -- is there nothing to prevent their escape at least in our direction? That, obviously, is the question. And that, we are told over and over again, is one for the Front Office. Well -- it’s our cliche -- but everyone seems stuck with it.”


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