As a child, I learned what it meant to have one’s voice dubbed from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In the film, chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) is secretly called in to dub over the shrill speaking and singing voice of screen diva Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in order to save the studio’s first talking picture. When Lina finds out, Kathy is not only forced to agree to lend her voice to Lina’s future productions, but she is also threatened with career ruin if the secret is revealed.
Marni Nixon, who died Sunday at 86, was a real-life Kathy Selden. She was the singing voice of the stars in a series of celebrated Hollywood movies, including Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. She built her career singing for other people, out of the spotlight, often without credit. After years of anonymity, she began to demand the credit and royalties she deserved.
I first learned who Ms. Nixon was around the time I was introduced to Singin’ in the Rain. It was definitely a pull-the-curtain-to-reveal-the-Wizard moment, but I never felt duped. As a girl who was (and still is) obsessed with behind the scenes trivia, it added to the movie magic.
Watching these staples of my childhood even today, I can’t help but be amazed at Ms. Nixon’s talent for matching her voice to a character. It’s one thing to sing for an actress, but it’s another to embody that actress and sing as she would sing. Whether these women liked it or not, Ms. Nixon made them sound great.
In memory of Ms. Nixon, here are clips from some of the films that feature her enduring voice:
Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)
According to Ms. Nixon’s obituary, Marilyn Monroe did her own singing for “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” except the Nixon-dubbed line “These rocks don’t lose their shape.”
Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” (1956)
Deborah Kerr in “An Affair to Remember” (1957)
Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” (1961)
Natalie Wood wasn’t the only actor who had her singing dubbed in West Side Story. Richard Beymer’s vocals were provided by Jimmy Bryant.
Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” (1964)
Ms. Nixon also played Eliza Doolittle on stage in 1964 at New York City Center.
Herself in “The Sound of Music” (1965)
Ms. Nixon finally appeared on screen as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music. She’s the one who sings the line “She waltzes on her way to Mass/And whistles on the stair.”