- Posted: 4:22 PM, August 7, 2012
I was never lucky enough to meet Judith Crist, who was in many ways the most influential -- certainly the best known -- film critic in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. She was not, as her New York Times obit fatuously claims, the first woman to hold a full-time reviewing position for a "major American newspaper.'' I'm not even sure that honor belongs to Wanda Hale, who invented the star rating for movie reviews at the New York Daily News in the 1920s.
But Crist was a superb, seasoned journalist -- a dying breed in the ranks of present-day film critics -- who evolved newspaper reviewing beyond what had largely been an cozy extension of the studios' marketing departments (Hale was said to be fond of cases of liquor sent by publicists, who had the slogan "Four Stars for Four Roses'').
Indeed, studios brought pressure upon her first employer, the old New York Herald-Tribune (where she had covered, among other things, education and the TV quiz show scandals of the 1950s) when she started writing the kind of unpretentious, no-holds-barred reviews that were virtually unheard of in daily newspapers.
"Gather roun' chillun, while dem banjos is strumming' out 'Hurry Sundown' and ole Marse Preminger gwine tell us about de South,'' began Crist in her withering pan of Otto Preminger's "disaster,'' which made a high impression on me when I was in high school. "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. Otto Preminger has provided us not only with soap-opera plotting that gives Peyton Place Dostoievskian stature but also with cartoon characters and patronage of Negroes that are incredible in 1967. The whole melange would be offensive were it not simply ludicrous.''
A champion of emerging talent like Steven Spielberg, Crist literally invented television film criticism when she was asked to appear on an expanded version of WNBC's evening news during the extended 1962-1963 newspaper strike. She was so engaging (a decade before Siskel and Ebert) that NBC invited her to become a regular on "Today.''
In addition to appearing on "Today,'' Crist wrote for the Herald-Tribune's Sunday magazine, which survived as New York (and where she invented witty capsule reviews for old films in the TV listings) and also wrote about old movies on TV, a real passion of hers, for many years in TV Guide.
Crist did not court a cult or engage in politics like her rival, Pauline Kael (who I did interview when she gave a lecture in 1981 at Fairleigh Dickinson University). But Crist was a far larger figure on the cultural landscape than she's now been given credit for.