Marni Nixon Dead At 86: Why ‘My Fair Lady,’ ‘West Side Story’ Fans May Recognize Her Voice Before Her Name

Singer and actress Marni Nixon reportedly passed away on Sunday in New York City at the age of 86. According to Variety, the longtime performer died from breast cancer.

Many movie fans and critics may not easily recognize the name Marni Nixon as quickly as they would other popular celebrities and star actresses from the 50s and 60s such as Aubrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood. However, any fan of the movie adaptations of the musicals West Side Story and My Fair Lady would likely recognize Marni Nixon’s voice.

Why is that?

When star actresses were not able to deliver star performances in singing roles on the big screen, major movie studio executives would occasionally dub over their singing with people who could deliver.

From the 1940s and into the 1960s, this type of behind-the-scenes dubbing was used a lot more frequently than many movie fans probably realize or would like to admit. In most cases, the singers that performed the dub work remained anonymous, especially since studio executives wanted to maintain the illusion that the star actresses were doing their own singing.

Marni Nixon made a name for herself behind the scenes thanks to her brilliant voice, vocal range, and how natural her voice flowed with the actresses for which she would sing.

Marni’s first venture into the field of dubbing for actresses was featured in the 1949 film The Secret Garden. She performed the singing parts for child actress Margaret O’Brien. Several years later, in 1953, Marni Nixon sung the difficult parts and high notes of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the Howard Hawks-directed film adaptation Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — a song performed on-screen by Marilyn Monroe.

Nearly two years later, Ken Darby, a vocal director with 20th Century Fox, reached out to Marni again. Her assistance as a “ghost singer” was needed for Deborah Kerr’s performance in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I in 1955. Marni was called back to dub over Kerr’s singing again for the 1957 film, An Affair to Remember which also starred Cary Grant.

During a Q&A session with Robert Osborne in March of 2007, according to Classic Movie Guide, Marni Nixon opened up about her experience working behind the scenes with Deborah Kerr.

“In The King and I, when I first worked with Deborah Kerr, we prepared for a week at a time to get into her character. We stood side by side and rehearsed the scenes together. She would look at me, and I would look at her — both singing. Then I would go to the recording stage with the orchestra and record the number. Then she would mouth to that when it was filmed. That’s the best way to do it.”

When An Affair to Remember came along, Marni Nixon was still under contract with The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. However, she claimed that Deborah told her to “just sing it the way you think I’d sing it and I’ll just follow along.” Nixon further stated that she and Deborah Kerr “had a great kinship, the same color hair,” and it turned out that their ancestry was from the same part of Scotland.

Audrey Hepburn was the star of the show in the 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady.

However, according to Marni, Audrey “was very smart” and knew that her singing voice would be dubbed. In her interview with Robert Osborne, Marni Nixon talked about Audrey Hepburn’s daily voice lessons and just how many songs in My Fair Lady were performed by Audrey in the final cut of the film.

“[Audrey] was taking voice lessons every day, and I was permitted to go to those voice lessons and observe her and figure out how I would sing it. She recorded ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ to her own track. They eventually cut that out, and I had to dub in my voice after it was filmed, but all the other songs except… ‘Just You Wait’… was me.”

According to Variety, Natalie Wood was very reluctant about having someone dub over her singing in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. However, the report states that Marni Nixon “was quietly hired” to sing Maria’s parts against Natalie Wood’s wishes. Even though Marni was never officially credited for her work in the film, she reportedly received a royalty from the sales of the West Side Story soundtrack album.

Marni Nixon’s talent must have been hereditary because her son, the late Andrew Gold, wrote the iconic and memorable theme song, “Thank You for Being a Friend” for the popular sitcom Golden Girls.

Over the years, Marni Nixon did add quite a few credits in her own name to her resume as a singer and actress on both screen and stage. She even won four Emmy awards in the 1970s for hosting the popular children’s show Boomerang.

[Image via Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com]