“Singin’ in the Rain” was more true to life than most of us realize. Back in the day, the public was kept far away from the star and their talent. Stars were royalty, and any scandal could send you hurling ot the ground with the other mortals. And for the performers pushed into musicals, producers scrambled to keep their money-makers from looking foolish. So..dubbing was born. The actor would sing live to a track on set, and later, someone else with a voice similar to their speaking voice, was sent into the recording studio to match their voice with the actor’s lips. It was all very secretive. And many times, the perofrmers themselves had no idea they would end up being dubbed in the first place. Natalie Wood reheased lioke a madwoman for “West Sude Story” and was told by the producers her voice would indeed be used in the final cut of the film. As a matter of fact, she sang to her own voice during filming. She actually didn’t find out the truth until the film was about to open. She was understandably furious.
There are many surprises in the above clip. I won’t ruin it for you, so you really need to take some time and sit down and watch the whole thing. You will find one name though, that keeps appearing over and over again.
Nixon was not only the voice for Wood, but also for Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady), and Debrah Kerr (The Kind and I), as well as many, many others. The fascinating thing for me is Nixon’s process. I’ve watched interviews with her and read her book and the way she approaches this particular art is truly ingenious. She not only studies the character she studies the actor playing the character. She maintains that her job is to be invisible. To disappear. To become not only the written part, but the actual voice of the actress. You have to believe that it’s Hepburn we’re listening to. Nixon’s voice can’t come as some sort of shock in the middle of the film. And when you combine just those three particular performances and put them side by side, they don’t really seem like the same singer. This is part of Marni’s brilliance.
Nowadays, we’re used to lip synching. There’s an art to moving your mouth to your own voice, and some singers have, and some don’t. I’ll never forget years ago Janet Jackson’s lips being five lines ahead of her own voice when I went to see her in concert. Everyone around me kept saying there was an echo in the stadium, but I knew better. Shge was just a bad lip syncher. But we accept it. It’s a shame, but we accept it. We assume when we go to a live concert now, most of it (unless you’re Gaga) will be pre-sung and mouthed. I remember when Britney Spears was being chastised for this early on in her career, and I remember her saying:
“Well, how am I supposed to dance like that AND sing? Nobody can do that.”
Really, Briteny? Nobody?
Tina Turner, Ann Margaret, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr., Ben Vereen, there’s actually a very long list of people who did that very thing. For a very, very long time. But…times change and entertainment changes, as it should. Hopefully, Gaga will start a revolution, and audiences will start to demand we get what we pay for.
But when Hollywood was young, it was an Art. And Nixon was the Queen.