INTERVIEW: Legendary Hollywood Voice-Dubber Marni Nixon
You may not know the name Marni Nixon, the charming 85-year-old soprano, but you have likely heard her voice in one of the many iconic musicals of the 20th century. Nixon’s voice was dubbed over some of the silver screen’s biggest stars including Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the out-of-reach high notes.
The Manhattan-based singer shares her stories tonight during an evening of conversation moderated by former Paramount executive John Hersker — which will also include film clips and musical recordings — at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. (We hope she shows a clip from The Sound of Music where you can see her in one of her rare acting roles as Sister Sophia.)
Growing up as a musically talented kid near Los Angeles, Nixon was a child extra and landed her first vocal film gig when she sang the voice of the angels heard by Ingrid Bergman in the 1948 film Joan of Arc.
Nixon says her flexible voice, perfect pitch and her ability to sight-read put her in demand among the Hollywood studios. Don’t forget her discretion, too. Curiously, in an industry of make-believe and illusion, dubbing seems to have been a bit of a dirty secret. “They didn’t want it to be known that dubbing was going on,” says Nixon. “They thought the value of the picture would be diminished and people might not want to go see the picture if it was known.” Nixon describes a potentially disastrous situation that studio execs put her in during the filming of 1961’s West Side Story.
“Natalie Wood was the hardest work situation because she’d been lied to,” Nixon recalls. “The studio executives knew I would do all of her voice work but because her ego couldn’t take it and they were afraid she’d walk off the picture, they let her record all the songs with the orchestra. But they told me they’d throw it all out and record over with my voice. We were there at the same time recording.”
Talk about awkward. “Natalie did not want to be dubbed. Ostensibly I was there to record only the high notes,” she says.
Nixon’s tact and delicacy was essential in a movie business where ego is king. “It’s very hard ego-wise,” she says about the actresses. “They had to be sure I was not going to be hurtful or insert my voice. They had to understand that I was trying to be as much like them as possible so that no one could tell they were dubbed.”
Working with Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn was much less fraught. “Hepburn grudgingly agreed that she could see she was not quite doing it the way they wanted her to sing it,” says Nixon. “She was very helpful.”
Fearful studio execs wanted the dubbing hushed up, and signing secrecy agreements was standard procedure for Nixon. “I just knew it was all sort of silly,” says Nixon. “It was just a part of the process of making a movie … As Shakespeare says, ‘the play’s the thing.’” Nixon reasons that if hair, make-up and costume people got credits, why wouldn’t she for her voice work?
With her skills as a vocal chameleon, doing voiceovers was easy money. But her heart — and the majority of her career — was with opera and classical singing. Conductor Leonard Bernstein was an ally and colleague who graciously gave Nixon a percentage of his cut from the recording royalties to the West Side Story soundtrack. Nixon had worked before with Bernstein and sung with the New York Philharmonic. “Lenny said it wasn’t fair that I wasn’t getting a percentage and gave up a quarter percentage of his percentage,” says Nixon. “I adored Bernstein. He was gorgeous and wonderful and fun and a crazy person.”
Nixon’s voice has been her passport into Hollywood, Broadway, orchestras and opera houses around the world. Did she ever dream her vocal talents would propel her into such a rich, creative life? “Who knew?” she responds. “Life is just one big improv.”
Tuesday, December 8th, 7:30 pm, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA, brynmawrfilm.org, 610-527-9898.
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