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Judith Crist and The Persistence of Wisdom

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Judith Crist 1922-2012

Movie critics are not, by and large, a nurturing lot. We make snarky comments before screenings, gossip about celebrities, and pool our collective genius for annual Best of the Year awards. It's the rare critic who takes a younger colleague under his or her wing.

I have no idea if legendary critic Judith Crist, who died at age 90 on August 7, ever consciously guided a fledgling critic along, but she did have a profound impact on me, one spring day in 1972.

Crist had just spoken to an auditorium full of high school students during the Columbia Scholastic Press Association convention at Columbia University. I don't recall what her topic was; I do remember she seemed impossibly cool (in retrospect, that cool may have been detachment as Crist, an adjunct professor at Columbia, collected an easy honorarium in exchange for a stroll across campus).

As she exited the hall, a small knot of students, including me, gathered around her. They peppered her with questions, mostly about how they, too, could enter the glamorous, high-paying world of film criticism (Her advice, as I remember it: "Write for free until you find someone silly enough to pay you to do it.")

Her eyes somehow settled on mine, and I blurted out a question that had been vexing me for some time, ever since I wrote a truly bad (in every sense of the word) review of an ambitious-yet-awful Michael York film called Zeppelin.

"Do you ever feel badly," I asked, "when you know people have worked really hard and spent a lot of money on a movie, but you give it a bad review?"

Now she was staring at me, and the slightly bored cast over her eyes vanished.

"You just can't," she said. "I worried about that, too, until one day Bosley Crowther (her competitor over at The New York Times) told me he was thinking about quitting. He said, 'The minute you start to worry about the people behind the camera, that's when you have to find something else to do.'"

Crist, it seems, took Crowther's advice to heart: She became known as Hollywood's most hated critic. Inviting Judith Crist to review your movie, Billy Wilder said, was "like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage."

Crist lingered for a while to take more questions, and I filed away her words of wisdom. I've occasionally pulled them out, dusted them off, and tried to take them to heart. But their truly profound effect, I've found, has been in fostering in me the notion of a continuum among the men and women who practice this craft of criticism.

Here it is 2012, and I'm still drawing upon 40-year-old wisdom from a writer who, years before that, gathered that wisdom from a writer who'd been sitting in dark rooms and writing about movies since before World War II (Crowther reviewed Citizen Kane for the Times).  He'd been handed the reins at the Times by Frank Nugent (who went on to become one of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters), who succeeded Andre Sennwald, who came after Mordaunt Hall, the first bylined Times film critic, who was born barely a decade after the Civil War (he probably reviewed Birth of a Nation, which to him may have resembled a home movie).

Did those gentlemen pass similar words of wisdom to each other? I can't know that. But that advice I got from Judith Crist that afternoon-and which I hope to pass on to someone, some day, if they'll only ask-can in some form or other trace its DNA to a time when the movies were little more than flickering shadows on a storefront wall.

It's a lesson to me, and a lesson to anyone who has spent a lifetime accumulating experience and perhaps even wisdom.

Go ahead. Pass it on.



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