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Judith Crist dead: film critic remembered

Film critic Judith Crist at the Front Page

Film critic Judith Crist at the Front Page Awards presented by the Newspaper Women's Club of New York. Crist, a blunt and popular film critic in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, died Aug. 7, 2012. (Oct. 20, 1967) (Credit: AP)

This is not an obituary but an appreciation of Judith Crist, who died Tuesday at the age of 90. She was a film critic who became America's favorite during the 1960s thanks to her snappy writing, unwavering honesty and refusal to sail along on the currents of popular opinion. When I met her, I was a student at Columbia University's journalism program, and she was teaching a rigorous and famously ruthless class called Critical Writing. I had the honor of being accepted into that class, and while Crist disapproved of cliches, I'll use one anyway: It was worth the price of admission.

I say I was honored partly because Crist's class was not easy to get into. Most classes you could simply sign up for, but Critical Writing required writing samples, and she chose only about 10 students or so from the student body of roughly 200. I was deeply proud of getting in, but I quickly learned not to advertise it. Hurt feelings ran deep among the rejected. People far smarter than I, and who went on to careers far more illustrious, fumed over not making Crist's cut. In hindsight, though, I think Crist chose students who were not just talented but teachable, and who needed to be taught.

On the Columbia campus, there were apocryphal stories about students bursting into tears under Crist's attacks. Crist had already spent decades decimating the giants of the film industry: No less a director than Billy Wilder supposedly said that “Inviting her to review one of your pictures is like inviting the Boston Strangler to massage your neck.” She certainly wasn't about to go easy on a bunch of college types, no matter how much they'd paid in tuition. I think the stories about classroom meltdowns were exaggerated, though. (The only weeping I saw was done quietly out in the hallways.)

Here's how the class went. Each meeting, Crist gave an assignment. Some were simple: Describe St. Patrick's Cathedral. Some were tricky: “As American as _____." One was to write a personal anecdote, almost like short fiction. The next meeting, your essay was handed to another classmate at random. Each of us then read that essay aloud, though without revealing its author. Then all of us, without exception, would weigh in on its strengths and weaknesses.

The anonymous aspect was supposed to encourage honesty, and it did, although as the class progressed we began to recognize each other's style. Occasionally someone would try to go easy on a friend, but Crist wouldn't have it. She knew when you were pulling punches, and she'd press and press until finally she got the truth out of you, no matter how brutal.

Even more brutal were Crist's own comments, sometimes chiseled into your margins, sometimes spoken directly to your face. I can recall some of her reactions to my own work. Here's the first note I ever got: “Was this really the assignment?” Here's what she said to me in class one day: “This is so, so glib.” And here is what she wrote at the end of my personal anecdote: “I don't believe you.”

I loved every minute of that class. I loved it when Crist called my writing fatuous, flippant, lazy and worse. She said good things, too, but I remember the criticisms more clearly, and more fondly. They were true, they were helpful, and they stuck.

At the end of the semester, we all gathered at her Upper West Side apartment for an afternoon of gin and cigarettes. This seemed very glamorous to me, very East Coast. Crist, then in her 70s, was a rumpled but regal host, probably wearing one of her usual dark-hued tops and makeup that recalled a classier era. Crist seemed almost like Dorothy Parker to me, a figure from the smart, scintillating, cocktail-fueled New York of yore. She was a name-brand journalist and a fearsome critic. These were things I longed to be, and I felt pretty special being invited into her home.

Despite all my pretensions, though, what I learned from Crist was not wit or savagery or eloquence, but honesty. Her message was this: Don’t impress me, just be honest with me. Your opinion is pretty much all you've got, and if you can't give it to me straight then you're wasting my time -- and yours. That's a lesson I frequently forget, but it's a lesson I keep learning, too. I have Judith Crist to thank for it.

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