“To be a critic, you have to have maybe 3% education, 5% intelligence, 2% style and 90% gall and egomania in equal parts.”
“If you’re not a passionate devotee of film, or, in plainer language, a movie nut, you can’t really function as a critic. Why bother to criticize if you don’t care?”
Those two quotes from Judith Crist explain why, at the height of her career, she was the most watched and read film critic in America. Back in the dark ages, when we didn’t have cable television and the TV Guide was about the size of the Readers’ Digest magazine and the most popular magazine in the country, Judith Crist’s column was one of the highlights. She was “reviewing” films that were being shown on network television, films that she had reviewed when they were in the theaters at least a year earlier, as well as those ubiquitous “Made For Television Movies,” which back then was the equivalent of saying “Grade B or worse” for most of them. Crist was with TV Guide from 1966 to 1988, and was quick to praise the best “Made for TV” movies, the ones that crossed the social line and brought major issues to the small screen and our shocked living rooms – My Sweet Charlie in 1970, which examined race relations in a very claustrophobic film starring Patty Duke and Al Freeman, Jr., and the landmark That Certain Summer with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen in 1972, the first honest television look at homosexuality.
Crist was also reviewing films on TV on The Today Show, and had a column in The New York Herald Tribune and after the Tribune folded, in New York magazine. She could cut paper with her tongue and batter grown men to tears with her typewriter. What she loved, she was passionately in love with, and was responsible for my seeking out many older, classic films that she wrote about in her books. What she hated….well, she created a national uproar by having the unmitigated gall to hate 1965′s mega-hit movie, The Sound of Music. I shared her opinion. I had seen The Sound of Music on Broadway, and there was one scene in the movie that drove me completely nuts. On stage, Lisl’s Nazi boyfriend opens a door in the convent and finds the Von Trapps hiding there. Lisl starts to rise, her father holds her back, no one breathes, not even the audience. He closes the door and tells his off-stage commander there’s nothing in the room. It was, for musical theater, one of the most spare and powerful scenes possible, and in the movie it was changed to Christopher Plummer having a very wordy confrontation with the boyfriend in the courtyard. I hated it. Crist hated it. And I loved her for it. Even though she hated the film, she wrote an article, “Tribute to a Partnership” about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein that was printed in a booklet and packaged with the movie’s soundtrack album.
Crist was born in The Bronx, New York City, on May 22, 1922, daughter of Helen Schoenberg and Solomon Klein. She received her B.A. from Hunter College and an M.S. from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1945. Crist became the first female film critic ever employed by a major newspaper when The New York Herald Tribune hired her right from Columbia. She was handed all the arts and entertainment stories.
Crist was also a teacher, conducting the Judith Crist Film Weekends at Tarrytown House, Tarrytown, New York, from 1971 to 2006, and was an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism from 1958 until this year, and served on their Alumni Association Executive Board. Columbia presented her with two awards, the Alumni Award from the School of Journalism in 1963, and the Founder’s Award for fifty years of service to the University in 2008.
In 1980, Crist made her only film appearance, as a cabaret patron in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, and authored four 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.
Somehow, in her spare time (?), she was the wife of public relations counselor William B. Crist,from 1948 until his death in 1993, and the mother of Steven Crist, thorougbred racing handicapper and publisher of the Daily Racing Form, that indispensable guide to the horse racing world that has been around since 1894. Judith Crist, a pioneer for women in journalism and criticism, died in her home in Manhattan, New York, this morning at the glorious, well-lived aged of 90.