a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Posts tagged ‘University of Rhode Island’

Pioneering Film Critic Judith Crist, 90, Passes, Always a Gracious, Gracious Lady

Judith Crist, who without my realizing it until perhaps today, the day of her passing at age 90, had more of an influence on my life than I ever imagined.

I only met her once, when I interviewed her, back when I was in college, for the school newspaper. I don’t have a copy of it, I don’t think. I had interviewed Estelle Parsons, famously, the night before she won the Oscar for “Bonnie and Clyde.” BUT THATS ANOTHER STORY! Suffice it to say, it was a success and made the headlines of the University of Rhode Island’s “Beacon.”

I know how I got backstage to interview Estelle. I just asked. At the stage door. And they let me in!

But how I ever got to Judith Crist, I absolutely don’t know. I knew, I, a budding celebrity journalist, even then, I had to do something to top the Estelle Parsons interview. It made the headline of my paper, and I don’t know how I made the jump from her to Judith Crist, but it seemed logical at the time.

Judith Crist was at the height of her fame then. I had grown up avidly reading her every word every day in the New York Herald Tribune, which is the long-gone and much-missed newspaper that my parents bought every day. She was their film critic, and she was also on TV too on the Today Show. Where she did stick out like a sore thumb amongst the ditto-heads and the polished types. Polished, she wasn’t.

But she spoke her mind clearly, succinctly, and you remembered what she said. She loved foreign films, I remember that. I think I asked her about that when I finally did get to meet my (unacknowledged) idol. I wish I could remember more of exactly what she said, but alas I don’t. And not being a really trained journalist I don’t think I even took notes.

But I remember her very, very well. I couldn’t believe I was really in her house. The one she lived in all her life on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson river. It was one of those very old, grand apartments that went on it seemed forever, rooms upon rooms. High ceilings, too. Not like the shoeboxes of today. And it was very dimly lit, I remember. Just some lamps here or there. And there was no doorman. I think her name “Crist” was on a list outside the door, and you just pushed a button, and she let you in. Or maybe you just went right in. Very heavy, ornate iron door, I remember. Typical New York wrought iron decoration over glass. The door was as open as she turned out to be. You just went right in.

She was dressed in earth tones, too. Nothing showy. Like the apartment. She wasn’t ever trying to impress with her sense of style or her looks, god knows. On TV she looked like anomaly, because she looked like A REAL PERSON.

And every morning, before I went off to school, I had grown up watching her review movies on the Today show. My mother always said, “I like what she says. I think she’s right.” Didn’t matter that my mother hadn’t seen the movie. You just trusted Judith Crist’s taste.

And she didn’t much like Hollywood movies. Yes, they were still churning out the same amount of dreck that they do today, believe it or not. Read her Obit in the NYTimes. You can she how she never minced words. I guess I was a little afraid she was going to be that way with me. But she wasn’t at all. She was surprisingly friendly.

And I asked Mrs. Crist about her seeming championing of small, foreign films all the time, films not even in English, with god help us, SUB-TITLES. Why did she like foreign films more than American movies?

“Well, they’re just better! ” she snapped. I don’t remember her really snapping at me, like she seemed to be doing all the time on TV, except in that brief moment of fire.

She was incredibly nice to me, as was Estelle Parsons. I think Judith Crist might even have been in the phone book. And I just called her up and asked for an interview for my school paper, and unbelievably, she said “Yes” Immediately.

She liked the brashness I must’ve exhibited, I guess. Cold-calling her like that. She identified with it. I was a critic, too, for my school newspaper and was minoring in Journalism, and I think she felt a kindred spirit. And of course, we both loved movies.

I told her I wasn’t majoring in journalism. I was majoring in Acting. “I want to be an actor, a writer and a director, ” I declared. I can’t believe I told her that.

And she said, “You’re a real Renaissance man. You’re like Robert Shaw. I just interviewed him. He does everything, too.”

And she totally accepted that I was going to do and be all the things I said I was going to do. She didn’t belittle or demean my aspirations. She accepted them. She respected me. I remember being shocked actually by that. And well, she was right! I did go on to do all that. And I think she knew I would. She was the first person in her position in the industry to accept me as what I was and what I wanted to be. She was encouraging.

I guess she felt anyone who began their career interviewing  a future Academy Award winner the night before she won the Oscar had something on the ball. I was the Oscar Messenger even then. I told Estelle Parsons she was going to win. Then the next night, she did!

I’ll always have a very warm spot in my heart for Judith Crist. She was a gracious and accepting lady. No pretense about her whatsoever. She was real. She was who she was. And she knew what she knew. No nonsense.

I never saw her again, but always followed her reviews and her career with interest. When she was dropped from the Today show, my mother said “She was too good for them.” And she was right.

And I couldn’t believe that as a fledgling cub reporter, my second great interview was with TV star  Judith Crist! And she had been incredibly kind and supportive to me. I think she saw my burning ambition to be an actor was going to over-ride my instincts as a journalist. But she saw I had them.

I remember opening with her, your opening line with a celebrity is everything, I instinctively knew that, by telling her my father had put himself through Columbia School of Engineering during the Depression, at night. And she was very impressed by that.

And I knew she’d gone to Columbia, too. Maybe she thought I’d wake up from my Acting Reverie and go to Columbia School of Journalism. She probably would’ve helped me. But the thought never entered my mind. Until now.

I remember asking her about being famous and she said, “I guess the Today Show put me on the map. If the Map is what I’m on.” And she left it at that.

Judith Crist, you re-wrote the Map!

“Vertigo” One of Hitchcock’s Best & Now Best Film of All Time

I just HAVE to write more about “Vertigo”s great ascendance to being named “The Best Film of All Time” by the British film mag “Sight and Sound.”

I first saw “Vertigo” in college. At a special stand-alone screening. That was introduced by a film “expert,” a professorial type, who made sure everyone got “notes.” It was like he was TEACHING this film. This I thought was ludicrous. Since when did they TEACH movies? Movies were just something you went to and enjoyed or not enjoyed. That was it.

Yes, that shows you how long ago this was. Back, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back before the dawn of film schools. It was my first film lecture. And I was eager to go, because it was a Hitchcock film that was new to me, that I had never even heard of.

And this eager older gentlemen seemed so earnest in his presentation, I remember. It was like we HAD to understand “Vertigo” HIS way.It was a “Very special film” and it “was not received well by critics when it first opened.”

And I remember he laid special emphasis on the scene in the bookshop where James Stewart and Barbara Bel Geddes went to find out about the history of Carlotta  Valdez, the mystery woman from the past, whose portrait Kim Novak’s character, Madelyn, keeps returning to gaze at, at a museum.

This guest lecturer, who was brought in from elsewhere, and who was NOT a teacher at my school, wanted us to particularly note how increasingly DARK that scene became, as the bookstore-keeper who reveled in San Fransisco history, kept talking and talking about just how tragic Carlotta Valdez’ life was. And the darkening room lighting, when it was not dark at all outside,( It was the middle of the afternoon. Out the window you could see bright sunshine),was Hitchcock’s way of ominously emphasizing how dark the film was going to get. And of course, it did.

He wanted us also to notice how Midge, the Bel Geddes character, was always surrounded by light. indicating mental and physical health and common sense. This meant(I can’t believe I remember all this!) that she, Midge, was the one we were supposed to listen to.  And Stewart and Novak, of course, were not, and they were often enveloped in fog.

I think it was unequivocally both Stewart’s and Novak’s career-best performances.

I remember that lecture situation to this day.It was such an anomaly back then. To see a film, as a subject for a lecture. It was treated as a Special Event, and it was shown at night. It was not part of my theater curriculum.

I guess it made a lasting impression, remembering it all these years later. I guess I was a cinephile even then. I didn’t know that but I knew I always loved Alfred Hitchcock’s scary movies.

And I remember that it was the first time I had ever seen “Vertigo.” And so when the climatic turn of events began to unfurl, and the TWO dives off the Spanish mission, San Juan Bautista’s bell tower occurred. I was utterly shocked and screamed bloody murder. Especially at the end. For those two of you who have never seen it, I’m not going to reveal it here.

But I guess suffice it to say, that that incredible short scene that ends the film is like being scared to death by nuns.

In one of the interviews which I started to look up last night on You Tube on Hitchcock, it was revealed that Hitchcock was taught by Jesuits. So he must have been Catholic. Something I did not know, and something that is barely mentioned in the immense amount of scholarly film criticism that has been heaped upon him and his ouevre and rightly so, since then.

And since I came to that first screening of “Vertigo” back at URI, the University of Rhode Island, where I had the misfortune to be an undergraduate in THEATRE(but that’s ANOTHER story) I remember how profoundly moved and shaken and absolutely scared to death I was by that double-twist ending.

I remember feeling just awful for Kim Novak’s character, Judy. And for James Stewart, too.

In his famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, of which there are podcasts available online somewhere…or there WERE…I remember Hitchcock not wanting to talk about “Vertigo.” I think he said something like “Mistake! Mistake! The film didn’t work!” and Truffaut asked in French through the translator “Why?” and Hitchcock said “The man was too old.” Meaning James Stewart, the policeman who had to retire because he had vertigo. Hence the title.

How wrong Hitchcock was!

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