Marni Nixon died last month at 86, and I have been intending to write about her ever since. An accomplished soprano with perfect pitch and a rare gift for mimicry, Nixon secretly dubbed in the songs for Deborah Kerr as Anna in “The King and I,” Natalie Wood as Maria in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” three of the most successful and honored Hollywood adaptations of Broadway musicals. In doing so she was assisting in the perpetration of a fraud on critics and audiences, but one that had, and indeed has, some legitimate ethical arguments, and rationalizations too, to justify it. Why is using a stunt singer any more dishonest than using a stunt man? Isn’t film about making the audience accept illusions in pursuit of art? If an audience member will be more likely to enjoy a film thinking that a major star can really sing, why is it wrong to make it possible for them to believe that, at least for a while?
The reasoning would have more power if long before Marnie did her secret singing Hollywood hadn’t already made a classic musical, “Singin’ in the Rain,” that pronounced the practice fraudulent. Marni Nixon was a real life Cathy Seldon, the Debbie Reynolds contract player forced to supply the singing and speaking voice for a talentless silent film superstar, Lina Lamont, whose real voice would make dogs run for refuge and men claw off their ears, and whose continued status as a money-making asset for the studio depended on making her successful in talkies.
Ironically, even “Singin’ in the Rain” engaged in the same fraud it was ridiculing. Debbie Reynolds was a competent singer, but a richer, more mature voice was needed to match the image of Jean Hagen, the terrific comic actress playing Lina. So when Debbie was shown secretly replacing Lina’s nightmarish singing voice with her own, another singer was secretly used, uncredited, to dub Debbie. Her voice fit Lina perfectly, because the voice put in Debbie’s mouth while she was supposedly putting her voice into Lina’s was the real voice of… Jean Hagen.
In 1954, two years after “Singin’…,” Nixon she got a call from 20th Century Fox to supply the vocals for Deborah Kerr in The King and I. Kerr, who knew she couldn’t sing the role, was well aware of the ploy
“Whenever there was a song to be sung in a scene, I would get up and stand next to her and watch her while she sang,” Kerr told journalists years later. “And she would watch me, while I sang. After we recorded that song, she would have to go to the filming of it and mouth to that performance. So, she had to be very aware of what she was going to do and how she was going to sing the song, ahead of time.” This was, I think, the best of Nixon’s impersonations. She sounds exactly like Kerr would have sounded if she could really sing.
Studio executives made Nixon sign a contract denying her screen credit and requiring her to keep Kerr’s secret. So successful was the subterfuge—nobody suspected that a prelude to Milli Vanilli was afoot—that Nixon received a similar assignment in “West Side Story, destined to become one of the most honored movie musicals of all time.” This time, she made it sound like Natalie Wood, who played Maria, could really sing her role. Wood, Nixon later revealed, was not pleased, and for good reason: she had been assured that only certain high notes would be substituted, not the entire songs. Nixon later said that she thought Wood was treated horribly, because everyone on the set would tell her she was a wonderful singer, and she definitely was not.
Marni didn’t enlighten her, though. Contract, you know.
Then Nixon was hired to be the stunt singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.” This subterfuge moved the unethical needle up a notch. Hepburn’s casting was already controversial because the original Eliza, super-soprano Julie Andrews, was passed over to cast the bigger box office draw (at the time). With Nixon, who could sound exactly like Andrews, the studio could say, “See? We were right, weren’t we? Audrey can sing as well as Julie!”
That’s exactly what the public heard, for a while: Marnie singing like Audrey singing like Julie, and with nobody the wiser. Then Time magazine figured it all out, interviewed Marni, and titled the feature “The Ghostess with the Mostest.” The jig was up. Not only that, the practice of secretly having singers dub stars in musicals slowly fell out of favor. Nixon was hardly the only one who did it. Voice actor Bill Lee sang for Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music.” Annette Warren dubbed Ava Gardner’s singing voice (as Julie) in the last movie version of “Showboat.”Wood’s co-star, Richard Beymer, also couldn’t sing his role, Tony. That’s Jimmy Bryant you hear singing “Maria” in the movie.
Almost equaling the Jean dubbing Debbie dubbing Lina mind-bender was the stunt in “South Pacific.” Opera legend Ezio Pinza had played Emile on Broadway (bringing down the house with his solos “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “This Nearly Was Mine”), so another (younger, thinner, better looking) opera singer, Rossano Brazzi, was cast to play the role in the film. But Brazzi was a tenor, and the role required a bass, so Metropolitan Opera bass Georgio Tozzi secretly dubbed Brazzi.
Today, Hollywood versions of Broadway musicals either allow non-singing stars to croak their way through demanding musical roles, as with “Les Miserables” and “Sweeney Todd”—and who will ever forget Pierce Brosnan in “Mama Mia”?—use the Broadway casts, which means cinema tyros, or cast singers who can’t act the roles at all, as was done in the stillborn film of “Phantom of the Opera.” Those movies, and many others, will never be regarded as classics, and undermine the image and reputations of the shows they should, by rights, enhance.
Meanwhile, all three of Nixon’s films stand up well today, and are considered masterpieces or near to it. If movie art is ultimately a utilitarian exercise where entertainment trumps all other considerations, including transparency, then was Marnie Nixon’s career as a “ghost” truly unethical?
It’s a tough question. Nixon, was not attractive by movie star standards, and I’ll never forget a performance she did, in character, of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” on a TV variety show. Her singing was spot on, but Marnie just didn’t have “It,” whatever it is, that distinguishes stars from ordinary performers. Her career was not injured by the undercover singing, but other deserving actresses may have lost career-altering roles because producers could combine the talents of two performers in one body. Maureen O’Hara could sing Anna, for example, and was bitter that she never had the chance to play her. Might O’Hara have been cast, if dubbing Kerr was seen as deceptive?
I think, in fairness, we have to give Marni Nixon an ethics pass. She was new to Hollywood, and believed secret dubbing was standard practice, which it was. She didn’t think of it as unethical.
Maybe it wasn’t, if the alternative is having to listen to Russell Crowe singing in “Les Miz.”