She is perhaps the most popular American singer you’ve never heard of. Her 1961 soundtrack recording of West Side Story still holds the record of Longest Reign at No. 1 (54 weeks) on the Billboard 200.
Other hit albums: soundtracks of The King & I opposite Yul Brynner (1956) and My Fair Lady co-starring Rex Harrison (1964).
Still never heard of Marni Nixon? That’s the way studio bosses wanted it in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“I had to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t say anything, which I didn’t. But the orchestras talked about it. I can’t regulate other people talking about it. It got out,” says Nixon, now 85, who secretly dubbed the on-screen singing voices of Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Deborah Kerr in The King & I and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
“Marni has the ability to almost mold herself into other people's singing and styles,” says Robert A. Harris, a film historian who restored My Fair Lady for its latest high-definition release. “I don't think we have another Marni Nixon. I think she’s unique to the industry. I’m so pleased she’s finally getting her due. Back then they warned her, you talk about this and you’ll never work.”
Nixon gets the last word. In fact, she’s actually promoting the new My Fair Lady Blu-ray release ($40, CBS Home Entertainment/Paramount).
“In My Fair Lady, the word by that time had gotten around Hollywood. I think Audrey, herself, thought she lost the Academy Award because the word had snuck out that I had been doing the dubbing. It wasn’t supposed to be known,” Nixon recalls. “I was a concert singer. Everybody knew me as a singer, but not necessarily that I was doing the dubbing.”
Nixon began her career singing in the 1930s. Her first film jobs came in the late ‘40s and and early ‘50s, dubbing for film stars including Margaret O’Brien (The Secret Garden in 1949) and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
Monroe just needed some help with her high notes.
“I never did meet her,” Nixon says. “They just had me coming into the studio and gave me some earphones and said ‘Can you improve upon this and make sure you sound like Marilyn Monroe? Just sing it like you think she would sing it.’ They recorded it and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ That was it.”
Three years later, 20th Century-Fox hired Nixon to sing for Kerr in the film version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King & I.
“That was a completely different thing,” Nixon says. “With Deborah Kerr, I had to come into the studio every day. This took about 10 days of recording and rehearsing with her, everything she did in the scene. I would know exactly where she was looking. Then she would describe to me what she was thinking. She would sing and then I would sing. We would sing together and she would look at me to see how I was holding my lips — my body energy when I was singing.”
When it came time for Nixon to record songs including Hello, Young Lovers and Shall We Dance?, Kerr came to the studio and took it all in. “She sat there on a bench and tried those songs out with earphones and said, ‘Oh, this is good. Your pronunciation is very good.’ I had to get a specific enunciation, which she called ‘Mid-Atlantic,’ which was not really British and not really American, but in between so it could be easily understood.”
Then Kerr would go before the cameras and move her lips to Nixon’s recordings. “If she didn’t do it correctly, there was a little sync man under the camera who would watch her lips to see they were just in synchronization. You can’t do it before or after, but you have to actually anticipate and do it right with the film. Then it looks like it wasn’t dubbed at all. She was marvelous at that and there was good cooperation between the two of us. In the end, it didn’t look like anyone was dubbed at all. It was a good job.”
Making West Side Story was a less pleasant experience. Wood thought Nixon would only replace a few notes for her, as she did for Monroe.
“She wanted to do all her own singing and actually there was an orchestra recording session before she actually did the filming,” Nixon says. “She recorded some things, then I recorded some things. They told her that they were going to combine, go in and out of that track.”
The filmmakers never intended to keep Wood’s vocals. “They threw all of that out,” Nixon says. “I had to come back to earphones and redub that whole thing to the picture, which isn’t how we did it with Deborah Kerr. It was a secretive way, but very difficult way because Natalie was often doing things that were not quite in sync with the soundtrack. For some strange reason, the powers that be had this idea and they sort of forgot: They said, ‘We’ll have Marni Nixon fix it up when she comes to redub.’”
The West Side Story soundtrack on Columbia Records became one of the top-selling albums of all time. Of course, Nixon received no credit or label royalties. Composer Leonard Bernstein reportedly gave Nixon a percentage of his royalties for the album.
In 1964, Warner hired Nixon to dub for Hepburn, who originally recorded the soundtrack herself and then realized her singing voice wasn’t up to the challenge. As with Kerr, Nixon worked closely with Hepburn. “I practiced with her beforehand,” Nixon says.
Hepburn’s original vocal tracks are included as a Blu-ray bonus. The recordings were reconstructed in 1994 by Harris and his then-collaborator, James C. Katz. The two also restored Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window, along with Spartacus. Harris has also restored Lawrence of Arabia, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the first two Godfather films.
Harris twice restored My Fair Lady, the first time for LaserDisc in the early 1990s. The film was released on Blu-ray in 2011 using the earlier transfer, now considered technically inferior. Harris restored the film again and oversaw its new high-resolution transfer to video.
“We started again from square one. There is not one frame, not one moment of audio, that is the same as it was in 1994,” he says. “It’s the jewel in the CBS crown. It's one of Jack Warners’ major achievements. It’s one the most literate musicals of all time. It’s George Bernard Shaw. It’s just an extraordinary film. It will never need to be touched again.”
My Fair Lady won eight Oscars in 1965 including Best Picture, Best Actor (Harrison) and Best Director (George Cukor).
But in one of show business’ great ironies, Hepburn lost the Best Actress award to Julie Andrews — who in 1956 originated the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway with Harrison. Passed over by producer Jack L. Warner for My Fair Lady, Andrews instead went to work for Walt Disney, starred in Mary Poppins and won the big prize.
Nixon, married nearly 20 years to Oscar-winning screen composer Ernest Gold (Exodus) and mother of the late singer-songwriter Andrew Gold (Thank You For Being a Friend), says Hepburn worked hard on her singing and came away unhappy.
“It was uncomfortable because that she thought that it wasn’t her whole, total, completely artistic [performance],” Nixon says. “She was very sincere and very careful about being good about everything, and she was disturbed that it would get out that it wasn’t her complete performance. ... Of course it was disturbing to her because she was a perfectionist. She was disappointed, but she did give me credit in the end, very nicely, sweetly.”