‘How I discovered the real talent behind some of Tinseltown’s most famous tunes’

Aug 04, 2020
Marni Nixon finally received two very minor awards for her contribution to music in 2008. Source: Getty.

It was a miserable day, drizzling, max 7 degrees, not the sort of weather likely to encourage anyone to go outdoors. But it was also the sort of weather that might impel one to flick the remote to GEM. And what a revelation that proved to be.

West Side Story had been part of my social fabric since the early Sixties: I was more than dimly aware of the Jets and the Sharks and, student of American history as I then was, I knew it was, in a way, Leonard Bernstein’s take on the mean streets of American big cities. I was also aware of Big Lenny himself, with the US awash in the Sixties with savage attacks on his “radical chic” lifestyle in holding penthouse parties celebrating unmentionables like the Black Panthers and the Latino farm workers of the California grape-picking strike.

And I had later gifted my wife a copy of Bernstein’s daughter’s expose of life under the same roof as the great man in ‘Famous Father Girl’. But I had never actually seen the movie in all those years. Watching it, however, a sixth sense crept up on me that Natalie Wood, the female lead, was lip-synching her musical numbers, but when I pored over the credits to find whether she was actually dubbed, there was . . . nothing to see here.

And then came the real revelation. Ms Wood’s singing part, I found, all seven songs of it, was indeed dubbed, over the voice of a singer called Marni Nixon. I had never heard of Marni Nixon before, but further research into her career exposed a grotesque story.

The Fifties and the early Sixties (that is, the pre-Vietnam War era) were the highpoint of that peculiarly American phenomenon, the stage musical, and its subsequent transference to the silver screen. It was also the highpoint of that other peculiarly American phenomenon, the Hollywood star system. And, they, apparently, never quite fitted together; which is where Marni Nixon was slipped in.

Marni Nixon was a local Los Angeles girl who had a talent for singing. She could sing anything, it seems but, essentially, she was classically trained so that a film director’s need for an operatic quality voice would not have been a challenge for her. Whether she aspired to an operatic career but didn’t quite make the grade, I do not know. Nor do I know whether, alternatively, and like Deanna Durbin, the vagabond lifestyle of the international operatic stage held no appeal, either.

(You can still see how good she was on YouTube from a live performance of ‘Marietta’s Lied’ from Erich Korngold’s Dead City. To my ear, it lacks only the delicate refinement of a Lotte Lehmann whose iconic Twenties’ recording of the same piece, with Richard Tauber, is also preserved on YouTube.)

In any event, Nixon’s career largely became one of dubbing the megastars of the era, the stars who were box-office gold but whose singing voices were not much better than fair average quality. And it was truly the Hollywood A-list megastars that she dubbed: Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady where she dubbed no fewer than 10 songs.

Indeed, she was so polished as a musician that in West Side Story, she not only dubbed Natalie Wood, she also dubbed Rita Moreno in a QUINTET that also featured Wood.

Yet, in none of these movies was she given a credit, while everyone remotely connected with the various productions, right down to the catering van staff, got their moment of glory. And if that wasn’t enough, she never made a cent out of the film royalties, even though, for example, Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, inspires homage performances to this day, including our own Kylie Minogue.

Perhaps Big Lenny had pangs of remorse, because he personally forfeited to Nixon a small percentage of his own royalties for West Side Story, while producer/director Robert Wise (sadly, no relation) subsequently gave her a small credited part in The Sound of Music as Sister Sophia who sang ‘Maria’.

The scandalous thing is that Nixon was allegedly threatened with blacklisting if she blew the whistle on this dubbing illusion. While there is nothing inherently wrong with dubbing per se, on the principle of “horses for courses”, it just goes to show how much power and prestige was wrapped up in the Hollywood star system, that this fiction was allowed to continue for decades.

In fact, it was not until 2008, when Nixon was 78, that she even received two very minor awards for her contribution to music. But for her contribution to musical cinema – the biggest stage – the Academy could find it in their hearts to give her . . . nothing again.

It is not as if the Academy were incapable of revisiting its errors of the past and rectifying them, to some extent. As they did in presenting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo with his Oscar for “The Brave One”, 19 years after its release, and in giving Elia Kazan a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999 (over huge objections) despite having kow-towed to the book-burners of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. But in each case, it could be argued, such decisions really represented the closing of an ugly chapter in the post-war history of the American film industry.

So, why wasn’t there some recognition, however belated, for Marni Nixon, after Deborah Kerr, the last surviving megastar of those she dubbed so brilliantly, passed away in 2007?

I am not a confidante of the inner workings of the Motion Picture Academy so I don’t know whether such a special Oscar was ever contemplated before her death in 2016. But, I suppose, it could be argued that the belated recognition given Trumbo (a communist) and Kazan (a snitch) was an admission of collective fault in which no one person was made to pay the price of mea culpa, whereas to recognise Marni Nixon would, inevitably, tarnish the halos over Marilyn Monroe, Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn. And call into question the illusion of the whole Hollywood star system.

Perhaps that would have been a bridge too far for those who are, after all, the makers and peddlers of dreams. But I find it hard to believe there wasn’t someone on a studio payroll who couldn’t put together a form of words that rubbished no-one yet gave something tangible to someone who brought real pleasure to millions out there in viewer land.

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