Film Critic Judith Crist Dies at 90

Judith Crist - P 2012
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Judith Crist - P 2012

With a national audience on NBC's "Today," she wasn't shy about cutting some of the biggest movies of the day down to size.

Film critic Judith Crist, who became known to moviegoers nationwide for her tough, no-nonsense reviews during her tenure at NBC’s Today during the 1960s, has died. She was 90.

Her son Steven Crist told The Associated Press that she died at her Manhattan home after a long illness.

During her long career, she often was a trailblazer. At the New York Herald Tribune, where she worked for 22 years, she became the first woman to serve as a full-time critic for a major American newspaper. She was the Today show’s first movie reviewer, appearing from 1964 to 1973. She was the founding film critic for New York magazine when it began publishing in 1968, and she spent 22 years as a reviewer for TV Guide.

“To be a critic, you have to have maybe 3 percent education, 5 percent intelligence, 2 percent style and 90 percent gall and egomania in equal parts,” Crist once said. And she didn’t shy away from cutting some of the biggest movies of the day down to size.

Acknowledging the frenzy of press that surrounded the making of 1963’s Cleopatra, she wrote, “The mountain of notoriety has produced a mouse,” and she took a scalpel to Elizabeth Taylor’s performance, saying, “She is 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.” She dismissed Carroll Baker’s seductive performance in 1956’s Baby Doll as “more bomb than bombshell.” And she called 1965’s The Sound of Music “icky-sticky.”

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Some filmmakers repaid her in kind. Billy Wilder said that inviting Crist to review a film was “like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck message.” But when she won a New York Newspaper Club Award for Criticism for her scathing review of Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, Preminger sent a telegram that read, “Congratulations on your night of triumph from the man without whom all this would not be possible.”

Crist also hosted a long-running series of weekend film seminars in Tarrytown, N.Y., that inspired Woody Allen’s 1980 film Stardust Memories, in which the critic herself appeared as a cabaret patron.

Additionally, she taught at the Columbia School of Journalism for more than 50 years, longer than anyone else in the school’s history. She was famous for throwing an afternoon cocktail party for her students at the end of each semester. In 2008, she was honored with the Founder’s Award, given to an alum who has demonstrated continued support for the mission of the school to educate the next generation of journalists.

She was born Judith Cohen on May 22, 1922 in New York City. Her father was a traveling salesman, while her mother was a librarian and translator. Her family moved to Montreal shortly after her birth but returned to New York when she was 12. Crist often cited Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush as her first real film memory.

She attended Hunter College in New York, went on to study 18th century English literature at Columbia and then moved on to the Columbia journalism school, where she graduated in 1945. Her first journalism job was as an assistant to the women’s editor at the Herald Tribune. A newspaper strike in 1962 led to her first stint as a movie reviewer on television, for WABC New York.

Crist was hired for Today by the show’s producer, Al Morgan. “He saw me as kind of acerbic and literate and probably able to talk without a teleprompter, which we didn’t have in those days,” she recalled during a 2006 interview with the Archive of American Television.

She was married for 45 years to public relations consultant William B. Crist, who died in 1993. Her son and his wife Robin are planning a private burial with a possible memorial service in September.