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.