On Sunday of this week, we lost one of the most-heard but least-known singers of the last six to seven decades: Marni Nixon, American soprano and ghost-singer for featured actresses in movie musicals. She is best known for dubbing the singing voices of the leading actresses in films, including Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, among many others. She was 86.
Nixon’s career in film started in 1948 when she sang the voices of the angels heard by Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc. The same year, she did her first dubbing work when she provided Margaret O’Brien’s singing voice in 1948’s Big City and then 1949’s The Secret Garden. She also dubbed Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
In 1956, she worked closely with Deborah Kerr to supply the star’s singing voice for the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I and the next year she again worked with Kerr to dub her voice in An Affair to Remember. That year, she also sang for Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin. In 1960, she had an on-screen chorus role in Can-Can. In 1961’s West Side Story, the studio kept her work on the film (as the singing voice of Natalie Wood’s Maria) a secret, and Nixon also dubbed Rita Moreno’s singing in the film’s “Tonight” quintet.
This is shameful but oh-so-Hollywood: she was virtually invisible through much of her career.
Deborah Kerr was nominated for an Academy Award in 1956 for her role as Anna in The King and I; the film’s soundtrack album sold hundreds of thousands of copies. For singing Anna’s part on that album, Nixon recalled, she received a total of $420.
“You always had to sign a contract that nothing would be revealed,” Nixon told the ABC News program Nightline in 2007. “Twentieth Century Fox, when I did The King and I, threatened me.” She continued, “They said, if anybody ever knows that you did any part of the dubbing for Deborah Kerr, we’ll see to it that you don’t work in town again.”
She asked the producers of West Side Story for, but did not receive, any direct royalties from her work on the film, but Leonard Bernstein contractually gave her ¼ of one percent of his personal royalties from it. In 1962, she also sang Wood’s high notes in Gypsy. For My Fair Lady in 1964, she again worked with the female lead of the film, Audrey Hepburn, to perform the songs of Hepburn’s character Eliza. Because of her uncredited dubbing work in these films, Time magazine and many newspapers called her “The Ghostess with the Mostest.”
Though Ms. Nixon honored the bargain, her work soon became one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets. She became something of a cult figure, appearing as a guest on To Tell the Truth and as an answer to clues featured by Jeopardy!, Trivial Pursuit, and at least one New York Times crossword puzzle.
Her increasing renown helped bring her spectral trade into the light and encouraged her to push for official recognition. “The anonymity didn’t bother me until I sang Natalie Wood’s songs in West Side Story, ” Nixon told The Times in 1967. “Then I saw how important my singing was to the picture. I was giving my talent, and somebody else was taking the credit.”
Although she did appear as herself on stage early in her career—such as on Broadway in 1954 in The Girl in Pink Tights—it wasn’t until she had already proved herself a dozen times over that she finally began to receive on-stage credit for her magnificent gifts. In 1961 she made a special guest appearance on Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts broadcast. Before My Fair Lady was released in theatres in 1964, Nixon played Eliza in a production at New York City Center. Nixon’s first onscreen appearance was as Sister Sophia in the film The Sound of Music (1965). In the DVD commentary to the film, director Robert Wise comments that audiences were finally able to see the woman whose voice they knew so well.
Although the studios seldom accorded Nixon the screen credit and royalties that she began to demand, both later became customary for ghost singers.
Nixon, who continued singing until she was in her 80s, eventually came to regard her heard-but-not-seen life with affection. She paid it homage in a one-woman show, “Marni Nixon: The Voice of Hollywood,” with which she toured the country for years.
In the few movie musicals made today, directors tend to cast actors who are trained singers, like Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. What does this mean? According to The New York Times, it means that the ghost singers who were once a Hollywood mainstay have now, for the most part, become ghosts themselves.
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