Remembering Hollywood ‘Ghost Singer’ Marni Nixon : NPR
gross terry, host:
This is fresh air.
(song excerpt, “I could have danced all night”)
marni nixon: (singing) I could have danced all night. I could have danced the night away and still begged for more.
rude: this is marni nixon in the soundtrack of the movie “my fair lady”. Audrey Hepburn played the part of Eliza Doolittle in the film, but Nixon sang for the part. in fact, she dubbed voices for some 50 movies. She dubbed Natalie Wood’s singing part in “West Side Story” and Debra Carr singing in “King and I”. Although she was classically trained and an actress in her own right, she was often not credited for her singing and for the most part received very little compensation. Marni Nixon died earlier this week at the age of 86.
we are going to play an excerpt from the interview I recorded in 2001 with marni nixon and rita moreno when they were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the movie “west side story”. Moreno played Anita in the film. Natalie Wood played Maria. Here’s Marni Nixon singing the role of Maria with Jimmy Bryant, who sang for Richard Beymer, who played Tony in the movie.
(song excerpt, “tonight”)
nixon: (singing) tonight, tonight, it all started tonight. I saw you, and the world went away. tonight, tonight, there’s only you tonight. what you are, what you do, what you say.
jimmy bryant: (singing) today, all day, I had the feeling that a miracle would happen. now I know he was right.
marni nixon and jimmy bryant: (singing) because here you are, and what was just a world is a star tonight.
(excerpt from archived broadcast)
disgusting: marni nixon, you dubbed natalie wood’s singing. Did she know when she got the part that was going to be dubbed, that she wouldn’t be singing herself?
nixon: No, I think the problem always during the film was that I think it wasn’t very clear that she didn’t know how much of her voice could be used. I guess they didn’t tell her gradually, as they worked with her, that maybe she wasn’t going to be good enough because they were afraid of upsetting her. and she created an atmosphere of-I felt very uncomfortable.
and when we recorded the songs, they actually said they were going to record them with her doing the full songs and maybe there were combinations of me playing the high notes within those full recordings of her and then they would record me doing the full songs. and then they said they were going to combine them electronically later, which I knew wasn’t really possible. I think they created a monster, really, because they, she listened to the takes of her, and it’s very hard to know if you’re good or bad if you’re not really a singer, and these huge speakers that magnify any kind of discrepancy. and anyway, and then they’d say, oh, natalie, it’s just wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
disgusting: oh that’s so horrible.
nixon: And then they’d turn to me and wink at me, and I felt like I wanted to cringe.
rude: so what was your reaction when they told you, well, marni nixon will do it, your voice won’t be used in the songs?
nixon: well, i think from what i’ve heard, now, me, this is just second hand, i…
disgusting: you weren’t there.
nixon: …she only heard it through the music powers, and they said she was absolutely furious and walked out of the studio in total fury.
rude: well, marni nixon, when you were singing, it must have been tricky since natalie wood thought she was actually singing. you know, she was lip-syncing to her own recording. and then you had to sing in such a way that it matched her lip movements?
nixon: Well, you, that’s usually the process, it’s that it’s always the actors who have to come in and they have the job of articulating their track or anyone’s track. and then when he shot it on his track, the problem was also that it was out of sync with his own track. and I said, well, how am I going to fix it if his lips are no longer in sync with the orchestra? and they said, well, they’ll find a way (laughs). and so – that’s the hard way. I mean, it’s much better if it’s pre-recorded and decided, and then she has to do it. and then maybe you fix some little spots, but this was in every song, practically, it was like that.
disgusting: it was also a matter of feeling how that person feels when they are singing those particular lines.
nixon: yes. I couldn’t sing “such a boy”. someone else nicknamed me “such a guy” for a very simple reason, not because he can’t sing, but because at the time he was practically a coloratura, which is a very, very high voice. and I couldn’t hit the low notes at the beginning of the song that starts (singing) a boy like that who killed your brother.
and then he goes very high to (singing) very smart, maria, very smart.
and I couldn’t hit those low notes, so they finally said, well, we’re going to have to find someone for you, which, of course, broke my heart. and they brought a woman named – at that time a girl named betty wand who sang for me. And let me tell you how hard that is. i sat in the control room trying to tell her why i started this conversation about feeling how anita was feeling at that moment. but betty wand was the singer. She wasn’t an actress who sang, and she just couldn’t do it the way I wanted.
disgusting: oh, that’s terrible.
nixon: oh, it’s heartbreaking. he’s heartbreaking because he wanted it to sound like, it should have been almost a growl, a guy like that, you know, barely sung. and he ended up playing it—and every time he listens to it, it just—it makes my stomach clench because it sounded almost like a Mexican cliché. she was going (singing) a boy so she would kill your brother.
nixon: I would never dream of singing the song that way, and I won’t, by the way, I’m not making fun of her. that’s all he could do.
disgusting: just to clarify what’s going on in the scene for listeners who may not have seen the movie: maria’s boyfriend, tony, just killed anita’s boyfriend in a fight. and he had no intention of doing so. he didn’t want to do it. but he did it to avenge the murder of his best friend. and so anita – you, rita moreno like anita – is saying, you know, a guy like that killed your brother, you know, how can you be in love with him? and natalie wood says i had a love, i have a love and it’s all i got. so that’s…
nixon: but anita doesn’t just say that. She understands when she enters the bedroom that this girl, Maria, who was a virgin until then…
nixon: …she slept with her boyfriend’s killer. Maria, of all people, just slept with this young man.
disgusting: marni nixon, you dubbed the part of natalie wood in this duet. what is your experience with this duo?
nixon: It could have been one of the duets that, and maybe Rita knew, was planned for me from the beginning. so maybe she was singing with my voice during the filming. I totally forgot.
disgusting: you know what, marni? I think your voice was in that.
nixon: Now that I think about it, I don’t think she could have stretched herself on that. I think it was just that the musical directors approved it. I think I heard her sing it in the rehearsal studio and got an idea of what she was supposed to be hers. and then I recorded it, so we didn’t actually do a duet together.
rude: now I have to play this duet we’ve been talking about so much. then…
nixon: Now you’re going to hear a very Mexican girl (laughs).
disgusting: true. so imagine that on the screen we are seeing natalie wood and rita moreno, but what we are hearing in this duet is marni nixon and betty wand…
nixon: betty’s wand.
(excerpt from the song, “such a boy”)
nixon: (singing) oh no, anita, no, it’s not true, not for me. It’s true for you, not for me. I hear your words and in my head I know they’re smart. but my heart, anita, but my heart knows that they are wrong. you should know better. you were in love or so you said. you should know better. I have a love, and it is all that I have good or bad. What else can I do? I’m lovin ‘it. I am yours, and all that is. I also. I have a love, and it’s all I need.
rude: that’s “a boy like that” from the soundtrack of the movie “west side story” with the voices of betty wand and marni nixon. Nixon died on Sunday. my interview with nixon and rita moreno was recorded in 2001.
Coming soon, film critic david edelstein reviews “jason bourne” starring matt damon. this is fresh air.
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