August 8, 2012

Judith Crist, R.I.P.

When I was a kid, I could never understand Judith Crist's last name.  At first I figured it was misspelled - there had to be an "h" somewhere in that last name.  There wasn't, but it still took me awhile before I learned how to pronounce it.  (It rhymes with "wrist," in case you're wondering.)

Judith Crist was the longtime movie critic for TV Guide and the Today show in the 60s and 70s, and she would take them all on: Oscar winners, B flicks, made-for-TV schlock.  Her reviews were perceptive, and entertaining; although she liked and disliked particular movies as much as any critic, it was her savage stilletto thrusts - one obit called her the "queen of put-downs" - that most people remembered, and were entertained by.  

For example, she pronounced What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? as a "demonstration of bad taste in war movies, [with] a lot of pleasing actors . . . caught in a vulgar attempt at making war a barrel of fun filled with idiots."  She famously ripped Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown when it first came out in 1967, calling it the "worst film" of the year; when ABC reran it in 1973, she revised her earlier opinion, saying it now "ranks with the worst films of all time."  A 1968 western, 5 Card Stud with Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum, wasn't so bad - it "is so mediocre you can't get mad at it."  She once called Elizabeth Taylor "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."  She wrote that The Sound of Music was "for the 5-to-7 [year-old] set and their mommies who think the kids aren’t up to the stinging sophistication and biting wit of Mary Poppins." I read them and cackled with delight.

But Crist could praise as well; when the classic western Shane debuted on network TV in the 60s, she reminded viewers that the movie was "[t]he original source for many of the cliches of subsequent Westerns - cliches that in the original are matters of inspiration, of genius, and of art."  She despised George Patton as a war-lover, but praised George C. Scott's performance as one of the greatest "of all time."  She loved Mel Brooks, Stanley Kubrick and James Bond.

TV Guide used to have real writers, regulars like Crist and Edith Efron, and guests like Malcolm Muggeridge and Newton Minow. That was before it became a schlock fan magazine, a TV knock-off of People and Us and the rest of the supermarket checkout types. But if TV isn't the same, neither are the people who write about it.

Judith Crist was a movie critic, period; she wasn't going to write down to you just because you happened to be reading TV Guide instead of the The New York Times.  She wasn't going to pull her punches just because someone was a "movie star," and it didn't matter to her whether a movie was hyped by the network or stuck in the late, late show.  She was honest, and she gave you what she was paid to give: her opinion, with substance and style. 



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