Monday, July 25, 2016

R.I.P. Marni Nixon (1930-2016)

Marni Nixon
On January 24, 2016, singer and actress Marni Nixon died in Manhattan, New York at the age of 86 from breast cancer. It is likely that you don't know her face or name that well, but you'll likely recognize her voice. Dubbed by Time Magazine as "The Ghostess with the Mostest," she largely made her career in film working behind the scenes as a singer dubbing for actresses ranging from Deborah Kerr to Natalie Wood to Audrey Hepburn in films like The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady. She was also proficient on stage as a singer and sometimes toured with performers like Liberace and Victor Borge. She enjoyed a Hollywood career without the tassels of fame, serving as the underrated talent that made some of cinema's greatest musicals work so well. Her name may not be familiar, but her work will live on forever in Oscar history thanks to her tireless work to make lesser singers shine.

Nixon was born on February 22, 1930 in Altadena, California. She was exposed to music at a young age and became a singer shortly after,  performing in the Robert Wagner Chorale among other groups. At the age of 18, her career began in film with Joan of Arc, where she dubbed the singing voices for angels that Ingrid Bergman sees. She also dubbed Margaret O'Brien's voice that year in Big City. One of her first memorable gigs came in 1953 when she dubbed Marilyn Monroe's high notes in the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes classic "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." A year later, she was on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights.

As he career went on, she did several other dubbing jobs, including twice for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember. Despite a lengthy career behind the scenes, she rarely if ever appeared in films at this time. One notable on screen cameo was for Can-Can where she played a member of the chorus. In what is likely to be her most recognized role, she dubbed vocals for Natalie Wood in West Side Story (she also partially dubbed Rita Moreno for the song "Tonight"). The dubbing was kept a secret from Wood just to let the surprise be bigger. When Nixon was rejected royalties for her work, director composer Leonard Bernstein promised her 1/4 of his personal earnings. The film would go on to win 10 of its 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. A few years later, she worked on My Fair Lady, this time dubbing Audrey Hepburn's vocals - which itself created controversy over whether Hepburn deserved an Oscar nomination (she didn't receive one). Still, much like West Side Story, My Fair Lady would end up winning 8 of its 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

To round out the 60's on film, Nixon finally had a significant role in West Side Story director Robert Wise's next musical adaptation: The Sound of Music. In this film, she starred as Sister Sophia. This time, the film won 5 of its 10 Oscar nominations. Her role wasn't significant enough for any consideration. In fact, her humble work that resulted in very little to no awards recognition earned her the nickname of "Ghostess with the Mostest" by Time Magazine. She would continue to do work in film randomly for the rest of her life, including the singing voice of Grandmother Fa in Disney's Mulan

Still, her love came more often in the performing part of her career in which she was on stage, sometimes touring with various performers and doing opera that emphasized her soprano style. She also taught at California Institute of Arts from 1969-1971. She performed opera for many companies including Los Angeles Opera and New York Philharmonic. She would occasionally dive into Broadway doing familiar shows as well as originating roles in Taking My Turn, Opa!, and Ballymore. She received two Grammys and continued to perform through 2008 - including a role in My Fair Lady as Mrs. Higgins. 

Nixon is the type of performer whose work doesn't entirely get the credit it deserves, and with good cause. Her job was to make actresses look like they were singing majestically. Most wouldn't likely notice without reading liner notes or noticing very similar pitches. Still, there were few singular forces in movie musicals as she was. If you wish to remember her well, try listening to West Side Story and My Fair Lady and realize how powerful her work is there. She is so attached to the work that her autobiography was called "I Could've Sung All Night." To some extent, she has thanks to her timeless contribution to cinema and its ability to entertain and move us in ways that we don't realize.

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