Marni Nixon: ‘The Ghostess with the Mostess’

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’ve probably never seen Marni Nixon’s face, but chances are, you’ve heard her voice.  She provided the vocals for the leading ladies of some of Hollywood’s most renowned musicals—Anna (Deborah Kerr) in The King and I, Maria (Natalie Wood) in West Side Story, and Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) in My Fair Lady—yet she never received screen credit.

So careful were the studios back then to safeguard the illusion that the stars did it all themselves that Twentieth Century Fox made Nixon sign a contract promising that she would never reveal the ghost-singing.  “In those days, it was not known that dubbing was even going on,” Dixon said in a 2006 interview on NPR.  “The studio, Twentieth Century Fox, called me one day.  They said if anybody ever found out that I did any part of the dubbing for Deborah Kerr, they would see to it that I never worked in town again.  Can you imagine?  It’s like the Mafia!”

Graciously, Deborah Kerr gave Nixon partial credit in an interview, which made the public aware of Hollywood’s dirty little secret called dubbing.  In the 1960s, more and more people started realizing that the singing voices they heard in films did not always belong to the actors.

It’s a shame that Nixon’s contributions to musical cinema are still not widely acknowledged, as most of the general public goes on assuming that Audrey Hepburn, for example, has a knock-out set of pipes to go along with her good looks and acting.  It’s also a shame that ghost singers bear the stigma of being not pretty enough or talented enough, acting-wise, to actually be cast in a film.  Nixon was both pretty and talented, which goes to show that more goes into casting than just those two considerations.

I’m impressed by how versatile Nixon’s singing is—how she’s able to adapt the personality, the timbre, and inflections of her voice to those of the in-character actress she’s dubbing.  I mean, come on—she did a Puerto Rican teen, a Cockney flower girl, and an English schoolteacher.  And, if you want to throw her Disney credits into the mix, a goose and a Chinese grandmother.  Nixon also provided the singing voice for Margaret O’Brien’s character in The Secret Garden (1949) and sang the high pitches (“no, no, no, no, no…”) in Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

One of the few times Nixon appeared on screen was in The Sound of Music, as Sister Sophia.  (She’s the second one from the left.)

Nixon, now 80, may have been invisible on screen, but she certainly wasn’t (and isn’t—her career still continues) on stage.  Nixon has performed in Broadway shows, operas, and concerts and has recorded many albums under her own name.  She currently gives voice lessons in New York.

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