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Death of film critic Judith Crist

August 7, 2012

Judith Crist once said that a critic must be an egomaniac.  But she went on to say that a larger job requirement was passion—perhaps even love—for what movies are, do, and can be.

“Amid all the easily loved darlings of Charlie Brown’s circle, obstreperous Lucy holds a special place in my heart,” she said. “She fusses and fumes and she carps and complains.  That’s because Lucy cares.  And it’s the caring that counts.”

Crist was network TV's first theater and film critic on the Today show from 1963 to 1973.  Along with her reviews in the weekly TV Guide, she had the largest mass appeal of any American film critic. 

Judith Klein was born in Manhattan on May 22, 1922. Her family moved to Montreal when she was an infant, and she spent her first twelve years there before moving back to New York.  Her father, Solomon Klein, had business interests in furs and jewelry but lost everything in the Depression.  He became a traveling salesman and amateur inventor.  Her mother, the former Helen Schoenberg, was a librarian and translator.

But she became a “movie nut,” she said, when she saw Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush.  She began sneaking out to the movies, telling her mother that she was swimming at the Y or studying at the library.  She later said she might have made Phi Beta Kappa at Hunter College in Manhattan had she not cut class so many times to go to the movies.  "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," she said in an interview with Eve's Magazine. "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 went on to do graduate work in 18th-century English literature at Columbia, teach at Washington State University, become a civilian English instructor for the Air Force and attend the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, finishing her degree in 1945.  Her first job at The Herald Tribune was assistant to the women’s editor.  In 1947 she married William Crist, a PR consultant.  After becoming a general-assignment reporter, she won a George Polk Award in 1951 for her education coverage.  From 1958 until shortly before her death, Crist was an adjunct professor of writing at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

It was during a newspaper strike in 1963 that she took up the assignment of reviewing theatre and movies for WABC.  Those reviews brought her to the notice of the Today show as well as her employers at the Tribune.  They named her their movie critic on April 1, 1963.  A month later, her negative review of the blockbuster Cleopatra (which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) “as a monumental mouse” added to her notoriety.  There were threats by film companies to ban her from their screenings.  But 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.’ ”

She became notorious for her cutting reviews, leading director Billy Wilder to observe, “Getting her to review a film is like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage.”  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. ”  Of the 1967 Otto Preminger film, Hurry Sundown, she wrote, “For 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.”

But she championed filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, in whose 1980 movie Stardust Memories she made a cameo appearance.  "If you're going to be a movie fan, you take Bond as seriously as you do the grand auteurism of Bergman," she explained.

Ms. Crist published a collection of reviews, The Private Eye, the Cowboy, and the Very Naked Girl: Movies From Cleo to Clyde (1968) and edited, designed, or contributed to several more books.  She also held Judith Crist Film Weekends near her home in Tarrytown, New York, each attended by about 200 people, including actors and filmmakers, from 1971 to 2006.

She once said of herself, “The critics who love are the severe ones.  We know our relationship must be based on honesty.”

Sources: “Judith Crist dies at 90; film critic ‘most hated by Hollywood,’” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2012; “Judith Crist, a Blunt and Influential Film Critic, Dies at 90,” New York Times, August 8, 2012; “Judith Crist obituary,” The Guardian, August 10, 2012; “Judith Crist: Queen Mother of Critics,” Eve’s Magazine; “Judith Crist,” Archive of American Television.

Judith Crist
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Judith Crist in 2006. Image courtesy of The Archive of American Television, emmytvlegends.org.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of film critic Judith Crist ." (Viewed on October 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/07/2012/death-of-film-critic-judith-crist>.

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