The voice of them all? – a tribute to Marni Nixon

marni-nixon-02Michael Darvell pays tribute to Marni Nixon (22 February 1922 – 24 July 2016).

In Hollywood’s heyday the film studios were always looking for perfection in every aspect of their cinematic output. For film stars good looks were paramount, whereas the acting generally came second. Dramatic talent could always be fixed with training and experience, but beauty was something that had to be there in the first place. No amount of make-up could turn an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. However, when it came to vocal talent, that too was not a problem, because dubbing another person’s voice over one that couldn’t hold a note was as easy as falling off a podium.

Throughout Hollywood’s history from the 1930s onwards, actors who couldn’t sing were often dubbed by those who could but who were not necessarily well-known in their own right. For example, Betty Wand sang for Leslie Caron in Gigi and Rita Moreno in West Side Story; Annette Warren dubbed Ava Gardner for Show Boat (although it is Gardner’s voice on the soundtrack album) and she provided the vocals for Lucille Ball in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones.

Nan Wynn sang for Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde, My Gal Sal and You Were Never Lovelier. Anita Ellis also sang for Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and for Jeanne Crain and Vera-Ellen, the latter basically being a highly talented dancer. India Adams covered Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon and Joan Crawford in Torch Song. Gogi Grant dubbed Ann Blyth in The Helen Morgan Story, even though Blyth’s own singing voice sounded more like Morgan’s than Grant’s. Martha Mears dubbed for umpteen Hollywood ladies including Loretta Young, Hedy Lamarr, Audrey Totter, Sonja Henie, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Michèle Morgan, Maria Montez, Eva Gabor and Claudette Colbert, among others.

It was mainly actresses who were voiced by other singers in film musicals, although some men have also been dubbed. Bill Lee sang for Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music and for John Kerr in South Pacific, and Giorgio Tozzi was the singing voice of Rossano Brazzi in South Pacific. Jimmy Bryant dubbed the songs in West Side Story for Richard Beymer playing Tony.

Mario Lanza was to have both sung and acted in The Student Prince but was replaced by Edmund Purdom. Lanza’s voice, however, is still heard singing on the soundtrack. Although Harry Belafonte was a singer, it was thought his voice was not powerful enough for Joe in Carmen Jones, which really requires an operatic technique. Similarly Dorothy Dandridge, also a singer, did not have a strong enough voice to sing Carmen. Instead they were dubbed by LeVern Hutcherson and Marilyn Horne. Hollywood even made a film about the dubbing of singers when the silent era of movies went into talkies. In Singin’ in the Rain bit-player Cathy (played by Debbie Reynolds) dubs the voice of the star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) and the irony is that even Debbie Reynolds was dubbed by another singer in one of her numbers, possibly by Hagen herself!

Perhaps the most celebrated of all playback or voiceover singers was MARNI NIXON who has died from breast cancer aged 86. Most song-dubbing artists remained anonymous and were never given any credit until, that is, she came along to reveal the fact that top-class singers were used to dub the voiceless ones. Nixon was born in 1930 in California to parents who encouraged her to sing because she had perfect pitch and took to sight-reading music with ease. She studied classical music and opera with the likes of Carl Ebert, Boris Goldovsky, Sarah Caldwell and Vera Schwartz. Nixon joined many choirs including the Roger Wagner Chorale and also became a vocal coach and performer, working in film, TV, opera, musicals and classical concerts and recitals.

With her magnificently clear soprano voice her own repertoire in opera included Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Violetta in La traviata etc, and she worked for many of the US opera houses including Los Angeles, Seattle and Tanglewood, as well as appearing with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestras among others. She recorded works by such avant garde composers as Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Anton Webern, Boulez and Aaron Copland, as well as singing popular items by the likes of Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin.

It may be, however, that she will be chiefly remembered for her work as a voiceover and playback artist who dubbed some famous actresses who couldn’t sing for their own supper. Nixon began her film career in 1942 in The Bashful Bachelor and in 1948 supplied the voices that Ingrid Bergman heard in Joan of Arc. She also sang for Margaret O’Brien in Big City (1948) and The Secret Garden (1949) and was the singing voices of Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and was also heard as the gaggle of geese in Mary Poppins (1964). Playing Grandmother Fa in Disney’s Mulan (1998) was her last film work, after which she toured the US as Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, played in the premiere of Richard Wargo’s opera Ballymore, and appeared in productions of The Sound of Music and The King and I. Back on Broadway in 2000 Nixon was in James Joyce’s The Dead and took over in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Follies and a tour of My Fair Lady, playing Mrs Higgins.

Apart from her voiceover work Nixon was also an actress and a versatile entertainer in films and on television throughout her career. She played Sister Sophia in the film of The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews and did TV work with Danny Kaye, Woody Woodbury, Jerry Seinfeld and Joey Bishop, and had her own TV show called Boomerang.

However, with her very adaptable singing voice Nixon will inevitably be remembered for dubbing some of the most famous actors in the world in some of the most popular films ever made. She was the voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember, she dubbed some of the higher notes for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, sang for Natalie Wood in both West Side Story and Gypsy, and provided the ‘luvverly’ voice for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. She also dubbed at various times for Janet Leigh and Jeannie Crain.

Nixon may not have appreciated being known as a substitute singer but she did save face and voice for a lot of leading ladies with no vocal talent. No wonder she was known as “the ghostess with the mostest”.

The actress and singer was married three times, firstly to Ernest Gold the film composer and conductor who wrote the scores of The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, Exodus and Ship of Fools among many others. They had three children: the singer-songwriter Andrew who died in 2011, and Martha and Melani. Her other husbands were Lajos Fenster, a doctor, and Albert Block, a musician who died in 2015.

Nixon’s last TV work was in an episode of Glee in 2011 in which she sang ‘A Boy Like That’ and ‘I Have a Love’. She published her autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night, in 2006.

Michael Darvell

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