Behind the Music

You probably do not recognize the lady pictured above.  Her name is Marni Nixon, and she’s had notable roles in many movies which are household names: West Side StoryAn Affair to RememberMy Fair Lady, and The King and I, as well as smaller parts in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Sound of Music.  With a filmography like the above — which includes three of the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies — it may be a mystery as to why very few people recognize her face.

The reason: Marni Nixon is a singer — a soprano who lent her voice to the leading ladies of many well-known films in the 1950s and 1960s.  She rarely appeared on screen, and was similarly rarely noted in the films’ credits.

Nixon became the voice behind many of the household name-actresses of the era slowly, but surely.  A classically trained opera singer, she picked up work here and there in the late 1940s into the early 1950s.  Most of that work was piecemeal or otherwise not very memorable; for example, in 1953, Marilyn Monroe starred alongside Jane Russell in a movie adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — but Monroe could not quite hit the high notes in the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friends.”  Nixon provided the solution, with a healthy dose of audio editing after the fact.

But in 1955, Nixon got her big break as tragedy struck the set of The King and I.  The woman who was hired to sing on behalf of lead actress Deborah Kerr died in a car accident.  Nixon was hired to replace the deceased singer and the movie — and Kerr — were a smashing success. The film received nine Academy Award nominations, winning five (including awards for “Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Piece” and “Sound Recording”).  Kerr was nominated for the Best Actress award but lost to Ingrid Bergman; Kerr did, however, win the Golden Globe for Best Actress.

A year later, Nixon would reprise her role as Kerr’s singing voice in An Affair to Remember, and soon after (1961), Nixon would be the vocal chords for other famous actresses.  In West Side Story, Nixon sang on behalf of Natalie Wood while also providing some dubbing support to Rita Moreno. And in 1963, Nixon added a final leading lady to her list, as she sang for Audrey Hepburn (save for one line in “I Could Have Danced All Night” which Hepburn herself sang) in the Academy Award winning Best Picture My Fair Lady.

Nixon did make it onto the silver screen once, notably — in The Sound of Music, playing the role of a nun, as seen here.  Julie Andrews, who performed the lead role of Maria, sang her own songs, but Nixon had a chance to as well — as also seen at the preceding link, Nixon performed parts of the score so that foreign dubbers had a framework off which to work.

Bonus fact: In 1978, “Thank You For Being a Friend,” the theme song to TV’s The Golden Girls, peaked on the BIllboard Hot 100 chart at #25.  The song was written by Andrew Gold and originally appeared on his album “All This & Heaven Too” but was performed by someone else (no, not Nixon — Cynthia Fee) for the television show.  Gold was Nixon’s son.

From the ArchivesThomas the Tank Engine’s Unlikely Friend: The narrators of the children’s show, Thomas and Friends, are surprisingly famous in their own right — with one in particular famous for a very unchildlike thing.

Related: A ton of music featuring Marni Nixon, plus her book, “I Could Have Sung All Night.”  Also, the CD “All This & Heaven Too,” by Andrew Gold (wearing a top hat).

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