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Marni Nixon: Ghost Voice

“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.

Marni Nixon.

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.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 9th, 2012 09:32 pm (UTC)
Dubbing has been a practice of studios since the dawn of musical pictures. About 4 1/2 years ago, I did an entry for my blog on dubbers, which includes a link to a site that has researched dubbing in movies over the years: http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/11870.html
Jan. 10th, 2012 03:42 am (UTC)
That was...amazing. I had NO idea how many musicals I (thought I) knew had leads who were dubbed.

Would you be willing to publish links to some of the Marni Nixon interviews you've watched, if any of them are on the web?
Jan. 11th, 2012 08:47 am (UTC)
You sent me googling. I found a video of Christopher Plummer's version on the song. I thought this was interesting..

From his autobiography, "In Spite of Myself":

"To further shake me up, our first recording session was upon us. Daunting is not a strong enough word to describe it. Julie and I stood side by side in a small glassed-in cubicle facing two microphones. Surrounding our prison cage sat 75 musicians like hungry jackals waiting to pounce, led by their keeper, Irwin Kostal.

Warbling softly into a mike is far more difficult than singing full out in a theatre as I was later to discover. One is much more likely to catch and collect "frogs" in the throat, whereas projecting usually gets rid of them. I tried so hard not to look like a complete basket case. Julie, sensing my nerves, took hold of my hand and held it throughout the session. It must have taken her days to recover the use of it afterwards, I had squeezed it so hard.

No matter how diligently I'd slugged away at my lessons, I was still untrained as a singer. To stay on a long-sustained note was, for me, akin to a drunk trying to walk the straight white line, whereas you can bet the very first cry that Julie let forth as she emerged from her mother's womb was in perfect pitch! Listening to the playback, there was no disputing we were on separate planets. In the end, Robert Wise managed to hire someone to take care of my elongated passages, and the balance was somewhat restored."

I actually liked it better even though he couldn't hit the high notes.
I still sad about little Oliver being dubbed. A childhood dream..alas.
Deb T.
Jan. 12th, 2012 03:00 am (UTC)
I know!
I was freaked out about Oliver as well. Sad wasn't it? I love that you found that!! Fascinating!!!!

The really sad thing was Natalie Wood. She was truly upset. But let's be honest, her voice simply was NOT strong enough and that part especially NEEDS to be sung. It can't by acted. You'd think, as self aware as she seemed to be, that she would have known that.

Ah well. She tried, and that was the important thing.

Every time I see "Showboat" I'm always reminded that Julie could have been Lena Horne. That always kills me.
Jan. 11th, 2012 01:32 pm (UTC)
I loved watching this but I feel so duped. Some of these costumes are horrendous.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )