Judith Crist:  Queen Mother of Critics

‘Love with a Fanatic’s Passion’


 By Eve Berliner


“The critics who love are the severe ones.  We know our relationship must be based on honesty.” – Judith Crist




The director Otto Preminger, notorious for his tyranny and his temper.



Twentieth Century Fox


Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton whose scandalous love affair created a worldwide senation during the making of Cleopatra.



By Eve Berliner



She was the queen mother of critics, her pen mightier than the sword in those critical years of the 1960’s and 70’s, in the torrent of the cinematic revolution, her search for truth fearsome and provocative.


There is a fragility to her now, at age 85, Judith Crist‘s startling blue eyes grown intense and sentimental with memories of a life in film.


It began in the depths of the great movie palaces of her youth, her inner magical life, entranced the first time her mother took her to the movies, the moving clouds and stars in the palace sky, “Judy, Judy, sit down.  You look over here at the screen,” uttered her mother.


Her first real film memory, vivid to this day, is The Gold Rush, “Chaplin performing the ballet dance with fork and rolls, eating his shoelaces as if they were spaghetti, tipping the cabin at the edge of the precipice!”  The rush was indeed unforgettable.


She fell in love with the movies with a fanatic’s passion.  It became her secret life, sneaking nickels and dimes from her mother’s purse in high school, cutting classes irreverently and joyously at Hunter College to catch the 9:00 a.m. show at The Paramount with her cinephile friend.  “The greatest day of my life I cut school and went to see Gone with the Wind at the Capitol for 25-cents, then across the street to the Rialto to see The Grapes of Wrath and down to 42nd Street for Grand Illusion on Broadway.  And there was still 75-cents left over to sustain us with an enormous chunk of many-layered whipped cream pie at Hector’s!”


Her early inspirations were the distinguished critic James Agee who wrote for “The Nation” and Frank Nugent of The New York Times.


The power of the critic?  “Not much.  It’s mainly for the edification and delight of other critics and cinephiles.”


She was known as “the critic most hated by Hollywood.” 


“The most glorious epithet ever hurled at me appeared in Time Magazine, anonymously:  ‘Snide, sarcastic, supercilious bitch!’”


Otto Preminger labelled her “Judas Christ.”


New York Post critic Richard Watts admired “her skill with the stiletto.”


And, Judy’s ultimate favorite, the brilliant director Billy Wilder, who commented that inviting Crist to review one of your films was “like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage.”


The Herald Tribune years:  “The best years of my life.”


Began as a feature writer on the “social significance page” for $27.50 a week in 1945, working with Helen Reid and her boss, Dorothy Bromley Dunbar, Joe Hertzberg  the much revered city editor.  Became a general assignment reporter for eleven years, second-string drama reviewer to the great Walter Kerr, and finally, editor for the arts. 


“He is one of my few Gods who never did diminish.  I worshipped him in every sense.”


But the struggle to be given “a voice,” her own critical voice, at the Herald Tribune took twenty years of imploring and being told “It’s not the right time for my kind of criticism.”


The fateful turning point was the protracted 114-day New York newspaper strike of 1962-63.  Out of nowhere, Crist was offered a startling opportunity by Jim Hagerty of the American Broadcasting Company to become Channel 7’s movie and theatre critic, reviewing stage and screen,  7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.  She was a blast of fresh opinion.  She caught the eye of Al Morgan, producer of “The Today Show,” and became network television’s first theatre and film critic for the next ten years.


With the resolution of the newspaper strike, things were in flux at The Trib. Herbert Kupferberg was appointed editor for the arts.  And on April 1, 1963, Judith Crist was named the New York Herald Tribune’s resident movie critic.


Six weeks later, she became famous [infamous] with her scathing review of  Spencer’s Mountain, starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, being shown at Radio City Music Hall.


“A film that for sheer prurience and perverted morality disguised as piety makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions,” noted Crist. “Outstanding for its smirking sexuality, its glorification of the vulgar.”


Radio City withdrew its advertising. But Trib publisher Jock Whitney and executive editor Jim Bellows would not be intimidated.  They immediately issued an editorial declaration of critical freedom on Crist’s behalf. 


Radio City reneged.  The ads in question returned.


One month later the storm of Cleopatra detonated, Crist in the center of the maelstrom, the movie, an extravaganza of riches, a grossly spectacular epic and the most expensive film ever made in America to date: $295-million in 2007 dollars, $44-million in 1963.  Starring the exquisite Elizabeth Taylor and the intriguing Richard Burton, written and directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it took five long years to bring to the screen amid the worldwide scandal that erupted around the illicit love affair of Taylor and Burton, both united in holy wedlock to other people.  Cleopatra became a phenomenon.


“At best a major disappointment, at worst an extravagant exercise in tedium,”  wrote Crist.  Burton does not appear for the first hour and twenty minutes, she points out, with another hour and 15 minutes before their first tepid embrace, Miss Taylor’s “accents and acting style jarring first with those of  [Rex] Harrison and later with those of Burton.  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.”


“With the mystique of Cleopatra missing, Antony loses heroic stature and winds up as a pathetic Caesar-ridden sot…There’s nothing grand about his passion for Cleopatra, and no grandeur in his destruction.  There is grandeur in Richard Burton’s way with a line and a fit of remorse, but the monotony and inconsequence of his role limit this very able actor.”


“…Even in their most dramatic moment, when Cleopatra and Antony are slapping each other around in her tomb, one’s most immediate image is of Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton having it out in the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum.”


“The mountain of notoriety has produced a mouse.”


Crist achieved “overnight” fame.   She won the New York Newspaper Women’s Club Award for her scorching review.  20th Century Fox cancelled its ten ticket table and demanded its money back.  Joe Mankiewicz quietly sent a personal check to the Club to compensate for the loss and over the years became lifelong friends with Judith. They never spoke of Cleopatra.


*   *   *


 “Yes the sixties and the seventies were the Golden Age, the great filmmakers who emerged and the movie stars in their prime – and the newcomers.  What a burgeoning – the foreign films and the great filmmakers and the passion.


“Woody Allen was reminiscing in a recent letter to me about a major film festival in which we all wore buttons that said ‘Fellini’ or ‘Antonioni.’  Woody was an Antonioni man.  I was an ardent Fellini person. 


“Yes, it was a kind of golden age.  I don’t mean to be in any way derogatory but there was nothing to compare with some of the animated movies of today – Ratatouille –sensational, and Toy Story.  From the standpoint of technology it’s another Golden Age.


And the actors of today: 


“I go anywhere to see Viggo Mortensen.  I’m an avid admirer of George Clooney.  A belated admirer of Leonardo DiCaprio.  I also like Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Russell Crowe, a very interesting actor.


“I go to the movies once a week with my kids, my son and his wife.  We geriatric ladies go on weekends to the early morning movie and talk it all over at brunch.”


Judith Crist has maintained her intuitive affinity for the young – their cauldron of energy and creativity and dreams of glory –  and drawn joy from it over half a century as an Adjunct Professor of Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism.  Her students love her.  Her favorite all-time class – the class of 1971 [of which David Pitt was a star.]


The memorable Judith Crist Film Weekends held in Tarrytown New York, which she initiated in 1971, have marked their end this year.  A center of cinematic ferment and dialogue among actors , directors, producers, writers, fans and scholars, it will be missed.


She gazes at a photograph of her beloved husband of 45 years, William B. Crist, a public relations consultant who passed away in 1993, who she only now has come to realize, bore a strong resemblance to a young Paul Newman.  Her son Steven Crist, is chairman of the board  and publisher of The Daily Racing Form, brave like his mother.


We conclude with an excerpt from Judy’s caustic review of the 1967 Otto Preminger film, Hurry Sundown, which subsequntly won the New York Newspaper Women’s Club Award for Criticism. “For 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.”


The prize was presented at the banquet by Mayor John V. Lindsay, who was handed a telegram from the great Preminger which he read aloud to the audience:  “Congratulations on your night of triumph from the man without whom all this would not be possible.”


“The last word, as usual, was his,” laughs Judy.



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