We’ve all heard Marni Nixon’s voice. But only some of us have heard her story.
Even though you probably couldn’t pick her face out in a crowd, Marni Nixon might have been the most important performer in the Hollywood movie musical boom of the ’50s and ’60s—and certainly the most talented singer.
Nixon, who died Sunday at age 86, dubbed the singing voices for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Though the trio of legends brought Anna, Maria, and Eliza to the big screen, it was Nixon’s voice who brought them to life—and and into our hearts.
It’s a story that would be fodder for its own Hollywood film…if it already wasn’t essentially the plot for Singin’ in the Rain. Just as studios started to rely on the star power of its greatest actresses to topline its movie musicals, Nixon, who had perfect pitch and a remarkable ability to sing any piece of music handed to her, was brought in to make their vocal performances more palatable.
In a way, Marni Nixon was the original autotune. Not that she would ever need it—listen to her indelible versions of “I Could Have Danced All Night” or “Somewhere” for proof of that. One of her first big jobs was singing the high notes that Marilyn Monroe couldn’t reach for Gentleman Prefer Blondes, landing the assignment to dub Kerr’s voice in The King and I soon after.
That Nixon did this was, of course, a secret. She received no screen credit for her work on those legendary films. She signed the scary contracts and kept mum in order to ensure that word never got out. Of course, it did eventually. TIME magazine caught wind of her work and unveiled her as the industry’s “ghostess with the mostest” in a 1964 article.
Despite the fact that the movies she sang for became blockbuster hits and instant classics, with West Wide Story and My Fair Lady even earning Best Picture Oscars, Nixon was so anonymous that she even appeared as a contestant on a 1964 episode of To Tell the Truth, the game show in which the contestant is joined by two imposters and celebrity panelists attempt to discern who is the real deal. Two of the four panelists correctly identified Nixon; perhaps her lying skills weren’t as prolific as her singing voice.
In a recent Washington Post article, Nixon graciously referred to her uncredited contributions as “just part of the working singer’s job in Hollywood,” saying that “you just worked any way you can.”
She told WNYC in 2009 that “they thought of course that if you did some ghost work that probably you weren’t really appearing on stage and that meant something was probably wrong with you, like you were too fat or ugly or cross-eyed or something.” That To Tell the Truth clip from 1964 suggests that certainly is not true. She was just as beautiful as she was talented. She just didn’t boast the name recognition of an Audrey Hepburn or a Deborah Kerr.
Hilariously, Nixon spilled that often the actresses for which she was doing dubbing work didn’t know their voices were being dubbed until their films came out, or at least not to what extent. Wood and Hepburn, for example, were under the impression that only some of their singing would be replaced by Nixon—the high notes too lofty to hit—not the entire musical performance.
“In the case of Audrey Hepburn, she was very smart and could say, ‘I know this is not good enough, I want to keep trying myself,’ but she had to accept that it wasn’t quite what it should be,” Nixon told The Washington Post. “But I don’t think that Natalie Wood’s ego could take that. Frankly, I think they used to create that kind of attitude too much—allowing them to have the illusion when they knew all along that she wasn’t good enough.”
She and Kerr had a wonderful working relationship, though. Kerr knew from the get-go that she would be dubbed, and worked side by side with Nixon to make sure that her acting performance matched Nixon’s vocal one. In an article titled “Deborah Kerr Tells Secret,” the actress even happily divulged that it was Nixon who did the singing.
When Nixon told her after the interview was published that people weren’t supposed to know, Nixon recalls that Kerr winkingly told her, “I don’t have to know that’s in your contract.” Recalling the memory, Nixon said about Kerr, “She was that gracious. She was wonderful.”
In the end, the fact that these movie musicals featured dubbed singing didn’t harm their legacies at all. Though, as NPR’s Linda Holmes noted Monday on Twitter, it says a lot about the industry and our culture that “Hollywood thought a young Puerto Rican, a poor English girl, and a prim schoolteacher should all sound like the same person.”
Remembering Nixon and her story on the sad occasion of her passing is interesting when you look at how movie musicals have evolved since she gave them her voice in the ’50s and the ’60s.
The insistence on casting marquee A-list names in challenging musical roles certainly hasn’t changed. If anything it’s become more prevalent, and so you have Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp singing Sondheim, or Beyoncé starring in Dreamgirls. Dubbing, however, has become a strictly forbidden practice. Perhaps we can blame Milli Vanilli for that—at least for the fact that we all had to listen to Pierce Brosnan sing in Mamma Mia.
In fact, the resistance to dubbing and even vocal sweetening has become so strong that Tom Hooper had all of his actors sing their numbers live for his 2012 Les Misérables film. The move had mixed results. It led to Anne Hathaway winning a much-deserved Oscar. It also gave us Russell Crowe’s vocal performance, a sound reminiscent to the mass murder of feral cats.
Would Crowe’s ego have allowed him to agree to a dubbing if the practice were still around? That may be doubtful, but we’d bet Nixon, somehow, would’ve done a flawless job of it.
In NPR’s remembrance of Nixon, Stephen Cole, the co-author of her autobiography I Could’ve Sung All Night, remembers when Nixon stepped out of her car onto the red carpet for the premiere of The Sound of Music. It’s the only film she appeared on-screen in, in a small role as one of the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” nuns.
“She got out of her car with her red hair and they all screamed, and then they looked at her and said: ‘Oh, it’s nobody!’” Cole says. If only they knew.