what I think of a film and why, and my readers know my tastes by now. Some hate
my taste, and so I'm reliable for them, too, since they know they'll like what
Crist, American film critic
BY JOE ELLIOTT
month marks the 96th birthday of American film critic Judith Crist (1922-2012).
Crist was one of the most influential and controversial movie reviewers of her
day. She was a founding film critic for New
York magazine and spent over two decades serving as the in-house movie
reviewer for TV Guide. In addition,
she was a frequent contributor to NBC’s Today
show for many years. She was very much a tell-it-like-it-is kind of critic,
totally unafraid to speak her mind even when this got her into hot water with
powerful people in the industry, which it sometimes did. While it’s hard to
believe today, back in the 1960s and 1970s a bad review from a prominent critic
like Crist could help sink a multi-million dollar film project. Her panning,
for example, of 1963’s Cleopatra
starring show-biz celebrity couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, so
upset executives at 20th Century-Foxthey
threatened to ban her from future screenings of new films.
was equally unafraid to criticize films the public loved, such as the hugely
popular The Sound of Music (1965), a
feature she characterized as
perfect “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.”Well-known Hollywood director and
full-time curmudgeon Otto Preminger sarcastically nicknamed her “Judas Crist,”
meant as an insult but also a sort of unintended backhand compliment to her
sagacity and prestige as a critic. (An antediluvian alpha male type likePreminger
likely would have been especially irked having a woman critique his films.)
Roger Ebert, a great admirer of Crist, credited her for helping turn American
film criticism into a popular art form, bringing to it both a sense of fun and
seriousness. Her work in turn spurred readers to seek out the writings of other
critics and reviewers, including Ebert himself. For this contribution alone we
owe her a lot. Then there was the platform she helped create for other savvy women
like herself who wished to have their own ideas and opinions taken seriously. In her 2012 New
York Times obit it was erroneously reported that she was the first woman to
become a full-time film critic at a major American newspaper.
She wasn’t the first, but certainly among the first, and
probably the first female to gain real prominence in that position. As a result, she helped open the door
for many who followed. In addition, she was an early vocal fan and supporter of
such newcomers as Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford
Coppola, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen. Not a bad legacy.
what I personally remember most about Judith Crist was her work for TV Guide. Every week my mom would buy a
copy of the guide, then one of the best-selling publications in America, at the
local grocery. Each new edition brought the promise of some exciting new
movies, either recent theatrical releases or those made for television. Crist
reviewed many of these for the magazine. I especially remember the big fall
preview edition that came out each year. This was the time when many of the
movie blockbusters and Oscar winners of the previous season first came to
television as the three major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) did battle during
“sweeps week,” a four-week period of intense rivalry for viewer ratings. There
was always a section by Crist, filled with pithy, often wickedly funny
thumbnail reviews of many of the films. Since I couldn’t watch all of them, I
trusted her to guide me in my viewing choices.
this end, I would carefully read each review as if I were going to be tested on
it the next day in school, taking special care to highlight those titles she
liked best, along with their scheduled air dates. My rule of thumb was, if she
liked it, I’d watch it: call her my first movie arbiter, my sovereign, my
queen. If I had to have one, and I suppose I did at that early age, I could
have done a lot worse. One of the few exceptions I made to this rule were the
“Man With No Name” westerns starring Clint Eastwood. For me, these were
entirely bullet-proof from criticism and I made it a summer ritual to see each
one of them.
Crist's pan of "Cleopatra" outraged executives at Fox.
when I was growing up I’d had a friend like Judith Crist. She said once in an
interview that as an adolescent she sometimes skipped school in order to catch
matinees of such film classics as The
Grapes of Wrath and Grand Illusion.
Doubtlessly she was absorbing everything she saw like a thirsty sponge. She
watched movies where and whenever she could, not because she was necessarily
planning to become a professional critic and writer one day, but simply because
it was her passion and love. They entertained her and broadened her perspective.
They opened her mind and heart to new people and places. They deepened her
understanding of humanity and history. In a word, they brought her joy. Definitely
my kind of girl.