You wouldn’t recognize her face, but you know her voice. Marni Nixon didn’t appear in THE KING & I, WEST SIDE STORY, or MY FAIR LADY, but she made invaluable contributions as the singing “ghost voice” of each of those films’ stars. Ms. Nixon passed away on July 24th at the age of 86. There’s nothing remotely grindhouse about her career, but she was a woman of enormous talent, so the Powers That Be let me write about her anyway.
Marni Nixon’s first dubbing job was for child star Margaret O’Brien in two films at MGM: 1948’s BIG CITY, and again in 1949’s THE SECRET GARDEN, where she sings a song her character, Mary Lennox, learned in India from her nurse.
It’s only 48 seconds, but it’s important to note here that she sounds like a twelve-year old girl. It’s not the full-bodied sound of an adult soprano. (To get an idea of O’Brien’s actual voice in the film, you can check out this scene, which also features a 13-year old Dean Stockwell.)
1950 saw the release of Walt Disney’s CINDERELLA. Nixon sang the soprano solo in the title song during the opening credits.
She would return to Disney for three more films in career. She was one of the singing flowers in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951); for MARY POPPINS (1964), she sang as the geese in “Jolly Holiday” and was the voice of the practically perfect nanny herself in the storybook album released by Disneyland Records; finally, she returned to studio in 1998 as the singing voice of June Foray’s Grandmother Fa in MULAN.
Nixon made a very effective contribution to GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in 1953, singing all of those high No!s for Marilyn Monroe in the introduction to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (she also provided the higher notes for Monroe in the song’s big finish).
For me, those Nos make the arrangement. She starts out the number sounding like an untouchable countess in an operetta. But once the actual song begins (with Monroe’s own sultry voice), she becomes a low-down high-class flirt. The movie takes a (brilliant) comedy solo and turns it into a grand production number that’s just as effective. Nixon’s voice isn’t perfectly imitative of Monroe’s, but no one can sing that high and still sound as breathy as Monroe. I’m pretty sure it’s literally impossible.
THE KING AND I (1956) was a major turning point in Nixon’s career. The film was her first gig as a ghost singer, dubbing all of the vocals for a star in apicture. She provided the singing voice of Anna, played by Deborah Kerr, who worked closely with Nixon. Nixon attended rehearsals for scenes where Anna sang, and would walk through the role side by side with Kerr. Nixon was able to absorb Kerr’s vocal performance, while Kerr learned the body language of a singer. The perfect example of their collaboration is in the musical monologue song “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” which was recorded and filmed, but dropped from the picture it was released. The song is half spoken (by Kerr) and half sung (by Nixon).
Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon actually stood side by side when recording the song, trading off lines and pointing to each other when it was time to switch. And the payoff is tremendous. Nixon sounds exactly the way Kerr would if she’d been singing her own songs. The following year, Nixon again dubbed Kerr for a few songs in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER.
Naturally, Nixon received no public credit for THE KING AND I (or any of her dubbing work), but word in Hollywood gets around and soon Marni Nixon became one of the most sought-after ghosts in the business. Her next major assignment was to dub Natalie Wood’s Maria in WEST SIDE STORY (1961). Wood very much wanted to do her own singing and spent months working on the score with a vocal coach. Her voice wasn’t strong enough to do the material justice, however, so Nixon was brought in to re-record the score, without Wood’s knowledge. YouTube user I LostVocals(who also added the names to the KING AND I clip) has done a remarkable job of adding Wood’s vocal tracks to the existing film footage. In this clip, the song “Tonight,” the vocal track switches between Wood and Nixon. Take a listen and judge for yourself:
Obviously, Nixon didn’t have the working relationship with Wood that she’d had with Deborah Kerr, since it was done it in secret. So it’s all the more remarkable that her singing resembles Wood’s so authentically. There’s no trace of Kerr’s British inflections, or her throaty alto. Nixon-as-Maria is a pure soprano, matching Natalie Wood’s voice in tone and color Replacing Wood’s vocals without her knowledge was a cruel (but hardly unusual) move by the studio, but they made the right decision. Wood’s soprano is thin and her singing too frequently flat. She may not have agreed , but her private embarrassment at being secretly replaced spared her the large-scale public humiliation that could have resulted from using her own vocals. (Nixon also dubbed Wood’s co-star, Oscar-winner Rita Moreno, on the final high notes of the “Tonight” quintet, in harmony with her own voice as Maria.)
Marni Nixon followed WEST SIDE STORY with her third and final major ghosting job, as Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice in My FAIR LADY. This was an enormous disappointment to Hepburn, who had already sung very effectively in FUNNY FACE and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. She never had a “legitimate” voice, but she didn’t need one to sing the rhythmic jazz of the Gershwins’ in FUNNY FACE or “Moon River” in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. MY FAIR LADY, on the other hand, required a true soprano for its score. Hepburn worked with MY FAIR LADY’s musical director Andre Previn, as well as her own vocal coach, for weeks prior to rehearsal, but the decision was ultimately made to bring in Nixon. The only vocal of Hepburn left in the film is one line in “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and the beginning and ending sections of “Just You Wait” (the vocal switches to Nixon at the 1:20 mark and back to Hepburn at 2:25 (I think)):
Another performance. Another actress. Another voice from Marni Nixon. It’s the same glorious soprano she revealed in WEST SIDE STORY, but with a much brighter tone and a more “British” sound. “Show Me” is entirely Nixon’s work (except for the guy) (who was also dubbed).:
Nixon’s most visible onscreen role came in 1965, where she played Sister Sophia in the immensely successful film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC. She’s the one who sings “She waltzes on her way to mass and whistles on the stair”:
As the movie musical waned in popularity, Marni Nixon continued to work onstage, in concert, and on television for the rest of her life. She wasn’t the first or the last ghost voice to work in Hollywood musicals, but there’s a particular triumph to her performances in three of the most successful movie musicals in history.
Finally, here is Marni Nixon as Marni Nixon, singing the nominees for Best Music, Score of a Musical Picture (Original or Adaptation) at the 1969 Oscars, accompanied by Henry Mancini.
It’s my new favorite thing ever.