Judith Crist dies at 90; film critic 'most hated by Hollywood'

As one of America's most widely read and influential film critics from the 1960s through the '80s, Judith Crist was known for her often-caustic reviews that earned her a reputation as "the critic most hated by Hollywood."

Director Billy Wilder once joked that inviting Crist to review a film was "like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage."

Director Otto Preminger referred to her simply as "Judas Crist."

Crist, who gained national exposure as the longtime critic for the "Today"show and "TV Guide," died Tuesday at her home in Manhattan after a long illness, said her son, Steven Crist. She was 90.

A self-described "movie nut" since she marveled at a silent Charlie Chaplin in "The Gold Rush" as a child in the 1920s, Crist put in 18 years as a reporter, feature writer, second-string drama critic and arts editor at the New York Herald Tribune before she finally realized her childhood dream of becoming a movie critic in the early 1960s.

Thanks to a long New York newspaper strike, she began reviewing theater and movies on a local TV station in 1963. Her appearances caught the eye of the producer of NBC's "Today" show, and she began a 10-year freelance run as network TV's first theater and film critic.

And when the newspaper strike ended in 1963, Crist was named film critic at the Herald Tribune. She was the first woman to become a full-time film critic at a major American newspaper.

From the beginning, she gained notoriety as a gutsy critic who pulled no punches.

In a scathing review of "Spencer's Mountain," a family drama starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara, she blasted Radio City Music Hall for its Easter-time showing of a film "that for sheer prurience and perverted morality disguised as piety makes the nudie shows at the Rialto look like Walt Disney productions."

The review touched a nerve:Warner Bros.sent her a telegram barring her from its screenings, and Radio City withdrew its advertising from the paper.

"Was I fired — or moved elsewhere in the paper?" Crist said in a 1997 speech. No, she said, the Herald Tribune "simply ran an editorial decrying my nemeses as childish and declaring that the Tribune's critic, right or wrong, had the right of free speech."

Crist continued to exert that right in her reviews, including offering this assessment of the over-budget 1963 epic "Cleopatra," starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: "At best a major disappointment, at worst an extravagant exercise in tedium."

But Crist, who later became founding film critic for New York magazine and spent 22 years as a critic for "TV Guide," didn't just find fault with films.

"One of the joys of criticism is in wanting to share discovered pleasure," she once wrote. "You can't kill the trash, but at least you can give the good a push and pass it on."

A critic, she said in a 1989 interview with the Jerusalem Post, "is an individual voicing his or her own opinion. He's not the voice of God. In my reviews, I say 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 I hate."

Crist championed filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, in whose 1980 movie "Stardust Memories" she made a cameo appearance.

In 1971, Crist began hosting film weekends in Tarrytown, N.Y. She continued doing the popular weekend events, which included film screenings and appearances by actors and filmmakers, until 2006.

The daughter of a fur trader, she was born Judith Klein on May 22, 1922, in New York City and spent much of her childhood in Canada before the family returned to New York.

Movies were a constant.

"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," she said in an interview with Eve's Magazine. "And there was still 75 cents left over to sustain us with an enormous chunk of many-layered whipped cream pie at Hector's."

A 1941 graduate of Hunter College, she received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1945.

From 1958 until last February, when she became ill, Crist was an adjunct professor of writing at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Her husband, William B. Crist, an educational public relations consultant, died in 1993.

She is survived by her son, editor and publisher emeritus of the Daily Racing Form, who said his mother continued her lifelong love of the movies to the end.

"Absolutely," he said, "She watched many hours a day of Turner Classic Movies and was frequently discovering something she hadn't seen in 60 years."

dennis.mcclellan@latimes.com