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Film critic Judith Crist dies at 90

Film critic Judith Crist at the Festival of

Film critic Judith Crist at the Festival of India Diaspora in New York City. (2001) Credit: Getty Images

Judith Crist, a caustic, exacting, irreverent, sprightly and altogether formidable film critic and journalism instructor who influenced generations of reviewers and sent shivers through generations of filmmakers, died Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.

The death was confirmed by her daughter-in-law, Robin Foster-Crist. Judith Crist taught at Columbia University's journalism school for more than 50 years and continued to lead classes in critical writing despite a heart attack in 2002 and having contracted hepatitis C in 2005. Her immediate cause of death was not announced.

Mrs. Crist -- Time magazine once said it "rhymes with hissed" -- was one of the most admired and feared critics from the 1960s to the '80s. Writer and director Billy Wilder quipped that "inviting her to review a movie was like inviting the Boston Strangler to give you a neck massage."

She began her movie-reviewing career in 1963 at the old New York Herald Tribune and achieved national stature by also working for TV Guide, which reached millions of subscribers, and NBC's "Today," the country's highest-rated morning TV program at the time.

Her byline also appeared in People, New York magazine, the Saturday Review and the Ladies' Home Journal, among other major publications.

At Columbia, she was one of the most demanding and in-demand teachers.

To succeed in criticism, Crist once joked, the formula was simple: "Go to grad school, get work on a newspaper and, 18 years later, be at the right place at the right time."

In a field of measured criticism, Crist was a howitzer.

She gained infamy for one of her first Herald Tribune reviews, a smack down of "Spencer's Mountain" (1963), a big-budget Easter release from Warner Bros. that starred Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara.

Warner Bros. and Radio City Music Hall, which was showing the film, withdrew their advertising from the Herald Tribune. That sparked national stories about attempts to muzzle Crist.

She did not relent going forward. For example, she denounced "The Sound of Music," the Oscar-winning 1965 musical starring Julie Andrews, as fit "for the 5-to-7 set and their mommies who think their kids aren't up to the stinging sophistication and biting wit of 'Mary Poppins.' "

As often as she disemboweled the dross, Crist was an ardent champion of film craftsmen who, in her opinion, made movies that matter. They included Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack.

She graduated from Hunter College in 1941 and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia in 1945.

In 1947, she married William Crist, a public relations consultant. He died in 1993. Survivors include a son, Steven Crist, publisher of the Daily Racing Form, of Hempstead.

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