The Man Who Knew Infinity
An account of a remarkable person should strive to be as equally remarkable as its subject, not the timid and tidy boilerplate special of a…
I only met Judith Crist once, but her career had an enormous role in shaping the world of the movie critics who followed her. She was the first full-time female movie critic for a big American daily newspaper, but set aside her gender: By her success and fame, she created jobs for movie critics where there were none before.
When she went to work for the New York Herald-Tribune in the 1940s, few newspapers had movie critics writing under their own names (the New York Times was an exception). The movie reviews were considered a "house column," farmed out on a film-by-film basis to assorted reporters, who wrote under such punning bylines as "Kate Cameron" (New York Daily News) and "May Tinee" (Chicago Tribune). Crist was fearless, acerbic and merciless--"Hollywood's most hated person," it was said.
She wrote a sensational pan of "Cleopatra," saying Elizabeth Taylor's acting "often rises to fishwife levels." 20th Century-Fox, which had invested a fortune in the film, banned her from all the studio's screenings. The movie was being followed by feverish attention, in large part because of the Taylor-Burton-Eddie Fisher affair that went on backstage. Many papers at the time considered movie reviews to be puff pieces or "support" for advertising, but after she got in hot water with Fox, a lot of editors started thinking, "Hey, maybe we should get us a real movie critic like Judith Crist."
"Cleopatra" was released in 1963, my senior year in college. At the time I had no plans to be a movie critic. I thought maybe I might become a professor of English, or maybe write an op-ed column on politics. But I had my eye on Crist's writing.
I was a columnist and editor for my college paper, The Daily Illini, and one of my pals was Tom DeVries, editor of the Roosevelt Torch. DeVries was consumed by devout enthusiasms, and one of them was for the Sunday edition of the Herald-Tribune. It couldn't cover the news better than the Times, but it figured it could write rings around the Grey Lady, and in those years it assembled one of the greatest stables of any newspaper.
The Sunday paper was laid out in sections designed with great clarity, using more art and white space than the Times, each one led by a star writer. I had heard all about it from DeVries, and one weekend in 1962 I visited him in Chicago and stayed in his Old Town walk-up on Cleveland Avenue. On Saturday night we had beers at the legendary Old Town Ale House, where you could watch silent comedies on a big screen and throw peanut shells on the floor. That struck me as incredibly cool. Then we went back to his place and listened to the Midnight Special, then as now a weekly radio program on WFMT, the fine arts station: Bob Gibson, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Tom Lehrer, Mort Sahl, the Swingle Singers.
On the Sunday morning he led the way down North Avenue and around the corner at Wells and down to Barbara's Bookstore, where the stack of Herald-Tribunes was taller than the Times. Then I sat on Tom's sofa and spread out the paper and studied the star writers in admiration: Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Red Smith, Judith Crist, and of course Art Buchwald from Paris. What more can you say about a paper than that it was the home of Walt Kelly's Pogo? Before I'd ever thought of being a newspaper film critic, I had a model forming in my mind.
Crist went from peak to peak. When the Herald-Trib and its successor with the ungainly name World-Journal-Tribune, folded, she followed the great Clay Felker when he founded New York magazine. She was already famous as the regular critic for the Today Show. She started writing weekly for TV Guide when its circulation was in the millions. And all over the country, newspaper readers were following movie critics whose jobs, in some measure, they owed to Crist.
As I said, I only met her the one time. I was more in Pauline Kael's orbit. I have no idea what they thought of one another, if anything; they moved in different circles. If things had happened differently, however, I would have seen a great deal of Crist. In 1966 I was accepted by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, but instead decided on the University of Chicago, for English lit.
I don't believe I knew that Judith Crist taught on the Columbia faculty--than, and over a period of 50 years ending only last spring. I learned that in a Time magazine appreciation by one of her students, Steven James Snyder.
She had students blind-read each other's work and join her in criticizing it frankly. "I can recall," writes Snyder, "how obvious my writing flaws became when read aloud, as well as how illuminating it was to hear my peers twist and tear at my arguments. I also remember how three weeks in her class instantly made me a more critical reader and self-editor, leaving me much more inclined to scrutinize my own work for the flaws that she would inevitably find. Whereas other criticism instructors may have focused on the fine art of dissection, Crist was a mainstream reviewer who relished in the interaction. Anyone could have an opinion, she would tell me, and it was a critic's responsibility to take a stand, whip up discussion, and embrace one's ego.
"As a student still learning the ropes, questioning the value of my opinion and my grasp of film history, it was a powerful point for Crist to make: the value of my review was to be found in the authority of my voice, and my willingness to construct prose as precisely and palpably as possible. So much about writing comes down to confidence, and Judith Crist was a master at obliterating arrogance into humility, and then building students back up with skill, voice and poise."
I sense the love in Snyder's prose. I feel it for a few of my own teachers and mentors. I never took Judith Crist's classes or got to know her well, although I might have, and it would have been to my benefit. But I read her when I was young and impressionable, and she was the best kind of role model, the kind you're not aware of. After DeVries led me to Barbara's Bookstore, I never again willingly missed the Sunday Herald-Tribune, or the daily when I could find it, until it disappeared in the catastrophe of the New York newspaper strike and its miserable aftermath. I read her, and I must have been thinking: If you're going to do it, this is how it's done.
Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories" (1980) was loosely inspired by the film weekends Judith Crist held at Tarrytown, NY. Crist can be glimpsed in the magician fantasy of Allen's character, Sandy Bates. At 12:08 of the clip below, a character satirizing Crist welcomes Woody to a seminar.
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