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Today in history… the big screen singing star who nobody ever heard of

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Did you ever wonder how such talented and beautiful actresses could also be blessed with such wonderful singing voices?

Very often the answer was a combination of “Hollywood magic” and the hugely talented Marni Nixon, who passed away four years ago today at the age of 86.

Nixon was known as Hollywood’s ‘invisible voice’ – the woman who dubbed the singing voice of many of Tinseltown’s leading ladies in some of the biggest movie musicals of the 20th century. Though you may never have seen her face, you will have heard her voice without even knowing it!

Nixon was the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in “The King and I”, Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”, Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”, and sang the high notes for Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”.

Yet for most of her career she remained unknown and unlisted in the films’ credits, or even on soundtrack recordings. Maintaining the illusion that it was the big name actresses singing on screen was a key part of her work, and one she always accepted. She likened her role to that of a stuntman, who must fool the viewer into believing it’s the handsome star performing the heroics!

There was also much more to her work than just singing a song which would then be dubbed onto a soundtrack. Nixon would work closely with the actresses, learning to copy their speech patterns and vocal peculiarities and add them to her own voice when singing as the film character. She was determined that audiences should never ‘see the join’ between the actress speaking and singing.

For “The King and I”, film studio 20th Century Fox made Nixon sign a contract saying she would never reveal her ‘ghost singing’ for Deborah Kerr, but the actress was full of admiration for Nixon and credited her work in a press interview. Not all actresses were as appreciative, with Natalie Wood led to believe Nixon would only be ‘helping out on the high notes’ for West Side Story. When she found out that all her singing would be replaced with Nixon’s voice, it more than dented her ego, although again it was Wood who got the on-screen credit.

Only later in her life, when the true extent of her film work became known, was Nixon put in the spotlight. Revealing her work as a ghost-singer, an article in Time magazine dubbed her “The Ghostess with the Mostest”.

Despite her voice appearing on more than 50 soundtracks, she was only once seen on screen singing, playing Sister Sophia, one of the nuns who sings “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” in “The Sound of Music”. This was also one of the few films where she wasn’t required to provide the singing voice for the leading lady, as Julie Andrews really could sing!

In later life Nixon, finally recognised as a star in her own right, began to perform as herself, singing on Broadway, in opera houses around the world and appearing as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Having twice survived cancer she also used her talent to raise money for cancer charities.

So the next time you marvel at an actress’s beautiful singing voice in a movie musical, ask yourself was it really her, or was it the marvellous Marni Nixon?

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