The passing of Marni Nixon was reported yesterday, and the first thought that entered my mind was the same as when Joyce Brothers died in 2013: I didn’t even realize she was still alive.
When Brothers died, you could hear a pin drop. It was a sober reminder that even celebrities can be forgotten in their own lifetimes. The next logical question is: Was Marni Nixon, a woman punnily remembered by the New York Times as “Hollywood’s most unsung singer,” indeed a celebrity?
On the face of it, the most noteworthy thing about Marni Nixon is the name itself. “Marni” always seemed like a good 1950s-type girl’s name, simultaneously plain and exotic, in the style of the times.
And then there’s ‘Nixon,’ which is a surname in a class by itself, especially on this blog. Put them together and the name Marni Nixon sounds like a 1950s ingenue from Typecasting 101, maybe Gidget’s best friend or one of Dobie Gillis’ many loves.
But Marni Nixon was a name that Hollywood did its best to keep out of the credits, even as she found herself in one after another cinematic blockbuster of Hollywood’s Golden Age that featured the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and a young Natalie Wood.
A staple feature of this era’s films was that at some point, the starlet would turn towards the camera and break into song. This was the proverbial close-up that every leading lady, or man, coveted, when the camera moved in close, staying on her or his face and lingering on its every expression for a good few minutes as she or he sang the ballad that would make the audience swoon or cry.
If there’s anyone that has more power over audiences than an actor, it’s a crooner. Look at the effect Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, or Elvis, had on a room.
Hollywood knew that. Hollywood also knew how to package talent. If their most beautiful leading ladies had voices to match, well… just listen to those cash registers ring and see the dollar signs flash.
Whether Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, or Natalie Wood could actually hit the right notes was not an issue for the Hollywood magic-makers.
Enter the voice double, a professional singer brought in to “enhance” the musical numbers. There was no good reason for the public to know that their favorite actresses weren’t really singing those songs, so voice doubles were not mentioned in the credits any more than ghostwriters were. The stars had fake names and sham marriages in order to give moviegoers a more appealing package, and this was more of the same. It was all part of making a film.
Musicals dominated the Hollywood box office for many years; people looked forward to seeing their leading ladies turn to the audience and break into song. A modern day analogy for audience expectations of actresses might be the sex scene. For that, Hollywood has body doubles, and for the former, they had voice doubles.
That’s where Marni Nixon comes in. Marni was the queen of the uncredited singing doubles, supplying parts for all of the actresses mentioned above, including some of the most memorable songs ever sung on film.
Nixon sang all the parts for Deborah Kerr’s lead role in 1956’s The King And I, which won five Oscars, and which earned Kerr a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
“The King And I” soundtrack was one of the top selling albums of the 1950s, and continues to sell well. Marni Nixon was paid $420 for her effort, and as a true Hollywood thank you, her name was kept out of the credits altogether.
Her reign as the queen of the vocal dub carried on into the 1960s with the West Side Story, another wildly successful musical adapted to the big screen. Natalie Wood got top billing in that musical film, but Marni Nixon sang Wood’s parts.
She then sang the parts of Audrey Hepburn, who starred as Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady, once again, uncredited.
My Fair Lady was the box office smash of 1964. It won 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director…and Best Sound, for the innovative use of microphones. But no mention of Marni Nixon whatsoever.
Well, it was the Sixties now, and audiences were becoming a little more sophisticated. The fact that the studio still insisted on leaving Nixon’s name out of the credits even though her voice was one of the most prominent features of some of the most successful movies of the past ten years led Time Magazine to label her, “the Ghostess with the Mostest.”
What’s interesting from this blog’s perspective is that My Fair Lady marks the swan song of one era, and the imminent rise of another. There was no way of knowing at the time, but My Fair Lady would mark the end of the big Hollywood musical, and would hasten the end of the studio system itself.
No more cigar-chomping moguls running their studios like petty tyrants, controlling all information going in and out, assigning actors and actresses new stage names by fiat, making people and their careers disappear with the snap of a finger, spoon-feeding information to a bought-off press.
In 1967, Rex Harrison, who played opposite Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, was signed up for what was expected to be another blockbuster musical adaptation, called Dr. Dolittle. The production was chronically delayed, ran hopelessly over-budget, and ended up flopping. Meanwhile Hollywood found itself being dominated that year by outsider films like Bonnie & Clyde and the Graduate, featuring actors such as Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Dustin Hoffman. Hollywood never looked back. The following year, names like Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson would rise to the surface, and stay there.
Musicals and Westerns, along with cigar-chomping moguls and the studio system itself, were quickly relegated to relic-status.
49 years separates us from the Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde and the cinema revolution they started. 49 years before the Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde debuted, Birth of a Nation was the biggest thing in cinema.
So, it will be interesting to see how much publicity the passing of Marni Nixon generates in 2016. As a marginalized figure from a bygone Hollywood era, it might be expected to garner about as much notice as that of Joyce Brothers.
But there are genre fans of Hollywood musicals who still live among us in high places. For these people, the name of Marni Nixon will always resonate, because she sang some of the most celebrated musical soundtrack numbers ever recorded. The Hollywood machine that kept Nixon’s name out of the headlines is long gone, and people are free to appreciate her dubbings as what they are: Not Jack Warner productions, not Audrey Hepburn performances, but Marni Nixon songs.
Eventually, the truth always wins out. The question is, does anyone still care enough to remember it?