Judith Crist died privately at an advanced age–90, secure, I hope, in the soundness of her judgments. She was one of those film critics who presided over the formative period of film history. The first movie she ever saw, at the credulous age of five, was a silent movie. As an adult she presided over the dissolution of the classical Hollywood studio system and the emergence of an American independent cinema–in other words, the birth of the contemporary American cinema. Her favorites were the darlings of the conventional side of the Sixties cultural upheaval: Spielberg, who slid quickly and effortlessly into the mainstream; Woody Allen, the quintessential middlebrow director; and two actors, Robert De Niro and Faye Dunaway, who were enigmatic without being disruptive. From her perch on the Today show of the 1960s she sorted through the tumult on the screen. She praised Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and David Lean, just like every other serious film critic of the time. Still, while she prodded Americans with televisions in their kitchens to see the European art cinema, which must have been a novel idea, she could be bold in discouraging the same audience from making safer, more obvious choices. Her pan of The Sound of Music would have stopped anyone in their tracks. “Icky-sticky” she called it. You can’t watch that movie without thinking of that phrase.
Crist was present for the the classical era of American independent filmmaking, the Sixties through the early Seventies. Crist first glimpsed Anne Bancroft, drolly sexy in The Graduate, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and found a mindless, “cowlike creature.” Crist was admired as a critic, but she trailed behind the leading of taste and wrote for people whose cultural aspirations were barely a notch above the mean. Readers Digest, which cut to the sentimental kernel of any narrative as quickly as possible, published her reviews for a while. Unlike Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris, Crist never had a platform to shape the tastes of her time. But she was all anyone could ask of a critic: informed, honest, and moved when she encountered excellence.