In a terrible year so far for losing so many talented people both within and without the show business world, it is very easy to overlook one or two. In fact that is precisely what I did last week when I failed to register the passing of someone pivotal to the success of some of the most famous film musicals of all time.
Last week Marni Nixon died aged 86. I think a lot of people probably would have gone ‘who?’ Indeed, I would have for many years and I consider myself to be quite a fan of musicals. I actually came across her name first in a slight obtuse way as I was at one point a fan of the late Andrew Gold (whose song ‘Lonely Boy’ is one of the relatively few things that the Lovely Wife and vehemently disagree about – if it came on the radio she would turn it off, while I would turn it up and happily sing along, but hey, as marital disputes go I think our marriage will survive this one). Marni Nixon was Andrew Gold’s mother. So it was in some amazement that I suddenly found out that some of the singing in a few of the most iconic film musicals was – at least in parts – dubbed.
The three most famous musicals that Marni Nixon provided the bulk of the singing vocals were ‘The King and I’, ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘West Side Story’ (the latter allegedly without Nathalie Wood being aware that it would be so). In the case of Deborah Kerr and the gorgeous Audrey Hepburn it was abundantly clear that the actresses were chosen for their acting skills and not their singing (not that it ever harmed Rex Harrison’s career as he happily talks his way through all his numbers). So it was left to Marni to fill in – and superbly. But without the stardom and in some cases even uncredited.
This is Hollywood magic at its best really; I adore ‘My Fair Lady’ in particular and it is something to the credit of Mani Nixon and Audrey Hepburn (who of course has to mime seamlessly) that you would never know that the singing you are hearing is not coming out of the mouth. Over dubbing is done all the time to fix sound problems and there have been many cases over the years where actors have been overdubbed by a different performer because in the editing suite it was clear that their own voice didn’t work or because they were unavailable for the pick-ups needed. While I have a lot of respect for David Prowse but I think it would be fair to say that Darth Vader might not have made such an impact (instant trivia fact – there is a Darth Vader carving on the National Cathedral in Washington DC) if he had sounded like the Green Cross Code Man. Incidentally, that’s a great excuse for a bit of nostalgia
In fact, considering how some people seem to cross the roads these days, we need the Green Cross Man (possibly in partnership with Tufty the Squirrel) to remind people who to do it safely. Actually, they should just get Peter Capaldi to glare at the camera and tell people off. It would not be the first time the Doctor has been involved in road safety campaigning after all
Now remember – ‘SPLINK!’
Got a bit distracted there. Anyway, it is probably fair to say that ‘in the business’ Marni Nixon was well respected and there are some good stories about how much collaboration between her and the actress she was dubbing – at least with Kerr and Hepburn. But it must have been interesting to have not had the level of public recognition that maybe her talents deserved. According to the BBC website she is quoted as comparing her work to that of a stuntman and I can understand that. The job was one of a professional singer in the same way as a body double has the skill to take the fall that actor might not. A reminder that movie making is always an ensemble piece no matter who the star seems to be, and that many of the people whose role is unsung (pun, as always intended) can be vital to making the project a success. In real life, I think that is true too.
So to Marni Nixon I’d like to say simply thank you for the music.