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Judith Crist, Pioneering Film Critic, Dies at 90

Known for her acerbic reviews, Billy Wilder once quipped that having Crist review a film was “like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage”

Judith Crist, one of the most feared and influential film critics in America, has died, her son Steven said Tuesday. She was 90.

Though a movie enthusiast, who said she fell in love with the medium while watching Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" as a child, her pen could drip with venom. 

Billy Wilder once quipped that having Crist review a film was “like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage.”

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During a career that spanned six decades, Crist was television critic for "Today" and wrote for a wide variety of publications such as the New York Herald Tribune, TV Guide, New York magazine. At the Herald Tribune, she became one of the first women to become a full-time critic at a large American newspaper.

Crist came into her prime at a time when the influence of American film critics was at its zenith.

As the movie business underwent a seismic shift that leveled the old studio system and gave rise to a younger generation of directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, readers increasingly turned to critics like Crist, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris to make sense of this new order. In the process they created a renaissance in film commentary that has never been equaled, becoming minor celebrities in the process.

With regards to her criticism, she could heap praise on actors and directors she admired — a collection that included Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Federico Fellini — and be savage to those films that did not meet her exacting standards. 

She had a particular talent for the cutting quip, wielding her rapier on such big-budget debacles as "Cleopatra." Of that particular slice of tabloid fodder, a studio-crushing flop that became untethered after Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor left their spouses for one another, Crist wrote "The mountain of notoriety has produced a mouse.”

Her withering put-downs did not always endear her to the Hollywood establishment, with theater chains and studios occasionally threatening her various publications with pulled advertising after negative reviews. Otto Preminger spoke for many in the industry when he branded the critic "Judas Crist."

Though she long ago retired from the weekly grind of film criticism, she remained an intense fan of movies. In an interview with Eve Berliner, Crist cited Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney as actors who kept her coming back to the movie theater.

In addition to her writing, Crist taught at Columbia School of Journalism since 1958, where her frank, often biting appraisals of students' work were legendary. She continued to teach at the school as an adjunct professor into 2012, until emergency surgery forced her to give up her mentoring of new generations of critics and journalists.