Saturday, July 07, 2007

Marni Nixon is My "Kathy Selden"

For the "Performance That Changed My Life Blog-a-thon" hosted by All About My Movies

Marni Nixon in West Side Story

Toward the end of Singin' in the Rain (1952), which chronicles Hollywood's seismic shift from silent films to sound production, a hilariously dim and screechy movie star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) gets her comeuppance. She has cruelly locked the sweet voiced Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) into a contract to provide her a suitable movie voice. Lamont is after self-preservation: she can't make sound movies with her own unappealing voice, but she also cruelly takes pleasure in preventing Kathy from pursuing stardom. At a live performance Kathy stands behind a curtain, her dreams in tatters, as she sings for Lina. But Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) pulls the curtain on the act in progress, rescuing his new girl from obscurity and dooming his former co-star to a fast fade.

Lina's evil plan is about to be spoiled in Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain is many things: a true musical masterpiece, a stellar romantic comedy, and the best movie Hollywood ever made about Hollywood (give or take Sunset Boulevard). It's a completely absorbing viewing experience but for this: Every time I see it my mind drifts away to Marni Nixon during this particular scene. Kathy's story isn't exactly Marni's. Marni wasn't forced into submission as the silents were dying. But she was the songbird woman behind the curtain for beloved movie musicals and she was born in 1930 as the silents were emitting their death rattle (Hollywood studios had halted silent film production by 1929. Only a few emerged in movie houses of 30s, most notably Murnau's Tabu and Chaplin's City Lights). Marni Nixon was to be a famous voice but not a famous face ...just like the almost-fate of the fictional Kathy Selden.

Marni (pictured left, looking very Julie Andrewsy!) started in showbiz early. She sang as a child and though trained in opera her instrument proved extremely versatile. Movie audiences first heard her as the voice of the angels in the Ingrid Bergman version of Joan of Arc (1948). That's a rather appropriate debut since her voice sure is heavenly. But her true claim to movie fame came in that decade long stretch from 1956 through 1965 when she was Kathy Selden to three (non-evil) Lina Lamonts: Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn in The King and I, West Side Story and My Fair Lady respectively. Nixon put the cherry on top of her filmography by appearing in the flesh in Sound of Music. She was Sister Sophia.

I was obsessed with West Side Story as a child (still am) and watched it on TV every chance I got. I don't remember exactly when it was that I was told that Natalie Wood was not doing her own singing but at first I didn't believe it. The singing had the same accent. It sounded like the same voice. That's my Natalie Wood. I was very possessive of my movie stars even as a young brat. It's a mark of both my never ending love for the movie and the generosity of Nixon's career --so much contribution, so little acclaim -- that when I did finally accept this, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the film but only added to it. Now I had Marni Nixon to love, too.

I think it bears noting that she is a true actress in song. You can occasionally hear the seams from her voice to the actresses (I blame the sound work of the time) but she was doing extraordinarily difficult work with laser like precision, looping and adapting her instrument to the vocal tones, accents, and lip movements of non-trained singers. All that plus she was truly acting the songs, lending matriarchal warmth to The King and I, reinforcing the flush of new love for West Side Story -- boy can you hear Maria falling deeper and deeper -- and aiding in Hepburn's transformation from street urchin to high society prize in My Fair Lady.

If that weren't enough, Nixon was doing touch up work for still more actresses. She sang for Margaret O'Brien, Janet Leigh, and even this: it's reportedly Nixon's voice you're hearing when Marilyn Monroe belts out the one line "these rocks don't lose their shape" during "Diamond's are a Girls' Best Friend." Marni Nixon even played the animated geese in Mary Poppins. Basically it's like this: Only with your DVDs on mute can you watch a 50s or 60s movie without Marni Nixon secretly contributing to your enjoyment. She's a stealth giver.

Marni was the first non-movie star non-director that I recognized as important to the cinema. I knew her name before I ever became devoted to watching end credits or following the careers of costume designers and cinematographers. She's come to represent to me all the unsung backstage heroes and heroines of film, the thousands of unfamiliar names and faces that help shape these great things we call movies.

Marni is 77 years old now. She lives right here in New York City and teaches voice lessons and occassionally performs (I've yet to see her, damn). Imagine the stories she could tell. In addition to the movie work she toured with both Liberace and Victor Borge and her son even composed the Golden Girls theme song "Thank You For Being a Friend". Craziness.

I'd be absolutely starstruck to ever meet her... a strange realization since I may have passed her on the street without even blinking. Her chameleon voice, a thrilling transcendent soprano, is completely embedded in my soul. I heard it 'round the family stereo (we had the vinyl on all of her musicals), I heard it in revival houses in Detroit (her musicals were sell outs), I hear it now whenever I think about the movies (often). I've been hearing her my entire life. I'm pretty sure that the Joan of Arc production got it right. I'll hear her after I die, too. She's the voice of the angels.

18 comments:

Catherine said...

That was amazing! Marni Nixon is all kinds of awesome and she really doesn't get the props she deserves. She was an inspired choice for this Blogathon (I'm kind of jealous you came up with it first!) and I also had no idea she was still alive.

Plus, West Side Story is one of my favourite films. Probably in Top 5 territory.

That was a great read. :)

Anna said...

I'm so glad to now know of Marni Nixon. Thank you. Without the unsung - pardon the pun - heroes/heroines of behind the scenes, where would we be - seriously.

16 year old blogger said...

She's a really nice lady....If anyone of you know what the Skip E. Lowe show is, I was a cameraman for this season (It films at Beverly Hills High School), Marni Nixon was on and it was really nice...It's unfortunate that she didn't become even more well known...

Steven said...

She also sang Rita Moreno's part at the end of the Quintet in West Side Story. You know, the whole "We're gonna mix it tonight" part. Apparently, Rita was "sick" that day they recorded it and Marni was already there in the studio. The worst part is that although Marni was there throughout the entire recording process, no one told Natalie Wood that they would be dubbing her. They recorded the entire score with Natalie's voice, all the time lying to her by saying that she was singing beautifully. Marni was supposed to only be there for high notes Natalie couldn't reach. Oops.

I have met Marni Nixon. She spoke at my school this past year. She's a lovely and gracious woman. She has recently written a memoir called I Could Have Sung All Night. Check it out if you like. She does have some interesting stories.

~Steven

Campaspe said...

aw, what a great tribute. When I read interviews she is also gracious about the way the studios stiffed her all those years, by working feverishly to conceal the fact that she even existed. I think she also sang the grandmother in Mulan. If she does another cabaret act in NYC, I am there (and will look to spot you in the audience).

Deborah said...

I've known about her for a long time, but you have lots of details I didn't know. Like the geese. She really is a remnant of another era in Hollywood, and she contributed so much.

Jose said...

Lovely post.
In a way Marni is like all those people who dub movies in European countries. People who then become forever attached to the specific actors and actresses they lend their voice to. That often reminds me of what a wonderful thing cinema is. In a way of speaking it's THE artform that merges everything and everyone into something heavenly.

Anonymous said...

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Marni Nixon and having her work with me in a master class for musical theatre at the National Association of Teachers of Singing in 1990. She was a very interesting and delightful person... and scared the hell out of me when she was on stage with me... my first experience with a true professional telling me what I was doing right... and mostly doing wrong. It was an experience I'll never forget. After my segment and two other performers' she said "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "I Could Have Danced All Night". It was VERY cool.

J.J. said...

She was at the NYC AMPAS screening of The King and I a couple years ago -- I was there and she was great.

NATHANIEL R said...

wow JJ you beat me to this tribute by 2 years! ;)

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Excellent, informative, and imaginative (love the Kathy Selden parallel) take on an original choice for the blogathon. I knew you'd come up with something great.

Nixon definitely was a big part of my musical upbringing, with the sountracks for West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The King and I staples on the turntable. Sure hope Marni at least received gold records for her work on these albums, which all sold in the millions.

J.J. said...

Always happy to work in a shameless plug. Glad you wrote about her, though -- it's important to keep her in the mix. I think AMPAS owes her one of its honorary statuettes, rather than a split-second mention in the In Memoriam montage when she goes. (What clip would they really show, though? Kerr, Hepburn and Wood's bodies, with Nixon's singing head CGI'd on?)

Kamikaze Camel said...

This entry appeared on MCN's home page. Nice.

Arden said...

god bless you! i had great admiration for her growing up on musicals. i don't know if she ever properly got her due. but if she were to ever read this post, i think she'd approve! xoxo Arden

Anonymous said...

THank you to Nathaniel AND jj - I've heard the name mentioned now and again, but never knew the details. Now doesn't this woman deserve one of those nationally televised AMC-tributes, where all of Hollywood finally gives her the ovation she deserves?

The studio minx telling Marni to keep her mouth shut about the dubbing or she'd never work again (as mentioned in jj's tribute) is more chilling than anything I've seen onscreen of late.

RedSatinDoll

monkey1954 said...

Hi, everyone
No one has mentioned Ms Nixon's dubbing in 'Gyspy'(1962) for Natalie Wood. She also dubbed Deborah Kerr's singing voice in 'A Affair to remember' (1957). In this movie, I honestly believe that at some point Ms Kerr uses her own voice to sing a few bars because the sound of the voice in the song sequence (dubbed by Marnie Nixon) doesn't sound the same to me! Similarly, in 'My Fair Lady' TWO voices can clearly be heard in the sonf 'Just you wait 'enry Higgins' If I remember correctly, it starts off with Audrey, switches to Marnie, switches back to Audrey, then ... I can't remember the exact seequence of voices - but one thing is for sure! - Audrey's and Marnie's voices can BOTH BE HEARD in that song! By the way, in 'An affair to remember' - at some point - Cary Grant calls the character 'Debbie' by mistake! Grace - 'the dreadful' - Kelly does the same thing in 'Dial M for
Murder' when she speak to her lover! Sorry - movuie buffs - for all this bad news
Phil

monkey1954 said...

Hi again,

The transition for Audrey to Marnie can also be clearly heard in the build up to and start of 'The rain in Spain'. Audrey sings the recitative and then Marnie takes it off! I understand that there's a recording around of Audrey singing the songs - maybe conducted dby Andre previn! This was before they decided to use another (Marnie's) voice. Also, in a bio of the life of Natalie Wood you can also hear - in the background - short pieces of the songs Natalie recorded for 'West Side Story'. She doesn't sing the songs well at all! This info. may not be 100% correct becasue it's coming from memory - or 'off the cuff'!
Phil

Kitty said...

I met and talked with Marni Nixon last spring (07) in Athens, GA when Robert Osborne brought her here for his annual Film Festival. It was one of the highlights of my life. She is very lovely. We are almost exactly the same age and I grew up on her beautiful singing voice. I bought her cd that night and also her book "I could have sung all night." It is a very good read. It is a shame that she didn't get more credit for all the work she did. I wish Hollywood would honor her in some wonderful way. Kitty