Marni Nixon, a singer and actress who gained a special kind of fame by dubbing the singing voices of other actresses in famous movie musicals, died in New York on July 24. She was 86.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, it was common practice in Hollywood, when adapting a hit stage musical for the screen, to cast, not the actors who originated the leading roles, but established film stars.
There was a flaw in this approach, however. More often than not, the actors who won the movie parts could not sing. For this essential task, movie producers and directors frequently turned to Marni Nixon and her wonderful soprano. The sweet notes coming out of Deborah Kerr’s mouth in The King and I (1956) were Nixon’s. When Natalie Wood warbled “I Feel Pretty” in West Side Story (1961), Nixon sang the words. When Audrey Hepburn spoke, as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964), she was pure Hepburn; when she sang, she was pure Nixon.
The public knew not of her contributions; they were not hinted at anywhere in the film’s credits.
Sometimes Nixon was brought in to just cover specific moments. She dubbed the high notes in Marilyn Monroe’s version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Nixon gave Kerr a singing voice once again in the romantic drama An Affair to Remember in 1957.
Nixon rarely got to sing on screen as herself, but she did play a small role as a nun in The Sound of Music, singing a few lines of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”
She was philosophical about her shadowy role in show business. “It was a better job than doing chorus work to subsidize my concert career—or doing jingles for commercials,” she told Playbill.com in 2000. “I just thought of it in terms of the challenge of really trying to make [my voice] sound exactly like Deborah Kerr. So I was very proud of my job.”
However, following her work on My Fair Lady, her attitude changed. “It was only after My Fair Lady that I really realized the value of what I had done—that I sang the lead. I thought, I should have done this myself. I started thinking, I don't want to do this again. This is not the right thing to do.”
Marni Nixon’s pipes were put to work at an early age. Born Margaret Nixon McEathron, in Altadena, CA, she began singing when she was a child. She studied singing and opera with Thomas Noble MacBurney, Carl Ebert, Jan Popper, Boris Goldovsky and Sarah Caldwell. She soon developed into an acclaimed concert singer.
As she grew older, Nixon’s reputation as a hidden force in Hollywood musicals earned her fame enough to land her occasional roles on stage. She was in the Broadway cast of James Joyce’s The Dead in 2000, stepped into the role of Heidi Schiller in the 2001 revival of Follies, and was a replacement actor for Guido’s Mother in the 2003 revival of Nine. She also concertized extensively, sometimes billing herself as “The Voice of Hollywood.”
She received a Drama Desk nomination for her performance in the musical Taking My Turn in 1984. In 2006, she published a memoir, titled I Could Have Sung All Night.
Nixon was married three times. She is survived by two children she had with her first husband, composer Ernest Gold, Martha Carr and Melani Gold Friedman. He second marriage to Lajos Fenster ended in divorce. Her third husband, Albert Block, predeceased her. So did a son from her first marriage, Andrew Gold.
Hear Marni Nixon's voice dubbed over Audrey Hepburn's for “I Could Have Danced All Night”: