Friday, January 7, 2011

Marni Nixon, A Voice Everyone Knows; and A Look Back at "Singin' in the Rain"

You may not know it, but you have heard her voice.  Most fans of movie musicals, and most movie-lovers of a certain age,  are familiar with the voice of Marni Nixon.

It was Ms. Nixon who dubbed the singing voices of Deborah Kerr in "The King and I", Natalie Wood in "West Side Story", and Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady".  Snippets of her work in all of these movies were heard on January 5, when NPR's "All things Considered interviewed  Nixon in honor of her 2011 Peabody Award for Outstanding Contributions to American Music.

Her interview showed her to be a genuine, gracious personality whose career is rich and varied.  She performed with some of the world's foremost orchestras, and played roles in well-known operas like "The Marriage of Figaro" and "La Traviata".  In Hollywood she was frequently a "playback singer" (the technical term for "dubber", whose voice is pre-recorded for lip-synching by on-camera talent) and rarely received screen credit for her contributions.

However, she did make one famous appearance in the movie "The Sound of Music", as Sister Sophia. Yes, she sang in her own voice! (Nixon is the second from the left.)

Trivia buffs may already know that Nixon was once married to Ernest Gold, the composer who wrote the sweeping song from the movie "Exodus" ("This land is mine...God gave this land to meeee...) One of her three sons from that marriage is popular singer Andrew Gold, who wrote the song "Thank You for Being A Friend" (Which became the theme for "The Golden Girls").

Nixon published an autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night, in 2006.  She has taught at the California Institute of the Arts and at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.

Considering the breadth of her vocal talent, and her world-class performances, it is fitting that she will get her moment in the spotlight.  I am pleased that she will receive the Peabody honor.

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This kind of dubbing is no longer fashionable in Hollywood  (although it's still frequently used in Bollywood features).

Marni Nixon's story brought to mind the classic 1952 musical "Singin' in the Rain", which gave a lighthearted account of the challenges posed by the advent of sound to the motion picture.  Many silent screen stars were physically and facially expressive, but their speaking voices were not star quality.  Some could not sustain careers in films because of it. 

"Singin' in the Rain" features a deliciously nasty diva (the wonderful Jean Hagen) who blackmails a young starlet (Debbie Reynolds) into dubbing her cinematic voice.  During a live appearance, the "curtain is drawn away" as it were, and Hagen gets her comeuppance while Reynolds gets the glory (and the hero).

Ironic and funny stories are told about the "voice work" in "Singin' in the Rain" (summed up by Wikipedia). Although the film revolves around the idea that Reynolds has to dub over for Hagen's voice, even in the talking scenes, it was actually Jean Hagen's normal voice.  Reynolds herself was dubbed in "Would You?" and "You are My Lucky Star" by an uncredited Betty Noyes.  Also, when Reynolds is supposedly dubbing Hagen's voice in the live performance of "Singing in the Rain" at the end of the film, Jean Hagen is actually dubbing Reynolds' speaking voice.

I'll bet Marni Nixon reveled in these stories too!


  1. Marni Nixon, I love you! I knew a girl in sixth grade that recognized the same voice in The King and I and My Fair Lady...but then assumed that Audrey Hepburn was the star of both! I was...shocked. Even at eleven, I knew the truth, and was surprised that anyone would confuse Kerr and Hepburn! Congrats to Ms. Nixon!

  2. Funny how she recognized the voice..but could not discern two diffferent faces! Oh well, sixth grade---say no more!