Remembering Hollywood 'Ghost Singer' Marni Nixon

Jul 29, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT")

MARNI NIXON: (Singing) I could have danced all night. I could have danced all night and still have begged for more.

GROSS: That's Marni Nixon on the soundtrack of the film "My Fair Lady." Audrey Hepburn played the role of Eliza Doolittle in the film, but Nixon did the singing for the role. In fact, she dubbed vocals for some 50 films. She dubbed Natalie Wood's singing part in "West Side Story" and Debra Carr singing in the "King And I." Although classically trained and an actress in her own right, she would often not be credited for her singing and mostly got very little compensation. Marni Nixon died earlier this week at the age of 86.

We're going to play an excerpt of the interview I recorded in 2001 with Marni Nixon and Rita Moreno when they were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the film "West Side Story." Moreno played Anita in the film. Natalie Wood played Maria. Here's Marni Nixon singing the part Maria with Jimmy Bryant, who did the singing for Richard Beymer who played Tony in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TONIGHT")

NIXON: (Singing) Tonight, tonight, it all began 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 a miracle would happen. I know now I was right.

MARNI NIXON AND JIMMY BRYANT: (Singing) For here you are, and what was just a world is a star tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Marni Nixon, you dubbed the singing for Natalie Wood. Did she know when she got the part that she was going to be dubbed, that she wouldn't be singing herself?

NIXON: No, I think the problem always during the picture was that I think it was very unclear that she didn't know how much of her voice could be used. They didn't tell her that gradually, I guess, as they worked with her that maybe it wasn't going to be good enough because they were afraid to upset her. And it created an atmosphere of - I felt very uneasy.

And when we recorded the songs, actually, they said they were going to record them with her doing the complete songs with maybe there were combinations of me doing the high notes within those complete recordings of hers and then they would record me doing the complete songs. And then they said they were going to combine those electronically later on, which I knew was not really possible to do. I think they created a monster, really, because they - she would listen to her takes, and it's very hard to know whether you're good or bad if not really being a singer - and these huge speakers that magnify any kind of discrepancy. And anyway, and they would tell her afterwards, oh, Natalie, it is just wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

GROSS: Oh, that's so awful.

NIXON: And then they would turn to me and wink, and I just felt like I wanted to cringe.

GROSS: So what was her reaction when she was told, well, it's going to be done by Marni Nixon, your voice isn't going to be used in the songs?

NIXON: Well, I think - from what I've heard - now, I - this is only secondhand, I...

GROSS: You weren't there.

NIXON: ...Only heard it through the musical powers that be, and they said that she was just absolutely furious and stomped out of the studio in a total rage.

GROSS: Well, Marni Nixon, when you were doing the singing, it must have been complicated since Natalie Wood thought she was singing for real. You know, she was lip syncing to her own recording. And then what - did you have to sing in such a way as to match her lip movements?

NIXON: Well, you - that's usually the process is that it's always the actors that has to come in and has the job of mouthing to her track or anybody's track. And so when she had filmed it to her track, the problem was also that she wasn't in sync with her own track. And I said, well, how am I supposed to fix it up if her lips are already not in sync with the orchestra? And they said, well, you'll figure out a way (laughter). And so that - that's the hardest way. I mean, it's so much better if it's pre-recorded and decided, and then she has to do it. And then maybe you just fix up a few little spots, but this was in every single song, practically, it was that way.

GROSS: It was also a question of feeling how that person feels when they're singing those particular lines.

NIXON: Yes. I was not able to sing "A Boy Like That." I was dubbed by another person for "A Boy Like That" for a very simple reason, not because I can't sing, but because at the time I was practically a coloratura, which is a very, very high-rangy voice. And I could not reach the low notes in the beginning of the song which starts (singing) a boy like that who killed your brother.

And then it goes up very high to (singing) very smart, Maria, very smart.

And I couldn't reach those low notes, so they finally said, well, we're going to have to find somebody for you, which, of course, broke my heart. And they brought in a woman named - at the time a girl named Betty Wand who sang for me. And let me tell you how difficult that is. I sat in the control room trying to tell her because I started this conversation about feeling how Anita was feeling at that time. But Betty Wand was the singer. She was not an actress who sang, and she just couldn't get it the way I wanted it.

GROSS: Oh, that's terrible.

NIXON: Oh, it's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking because I wanted it to sound - it should have almost been a growl - a boy like that, you know - barely sung. And she ended up sounding - and whenever I hear it, I just - my stomach knots up because she sounded almost like a cliche Mexican. She was going (singing) a boy like that who'd kill your brother.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NIXON: I wouldn't dream of ever singing the song that way, and I'm not, by the way - I'm not making fun of her. That's the only thing she was able to do.

GROSS: Just to clarify what's happening in the scene for listeners who might not have seen the movie - Maria's boyfriend, Tony, has just killed Anita's boyfriend at a rumble. And he didn't mean to do it. He didn't want to do it. But he did it to revenge the murder of his best friend. And so Anita - you, Rita Moreno as Anita - is saying, you know, a boy like that who killed your brother, you know, how can you be in love with him? And Natalie Wood is saying I had a love - I have a love and it's all that I have. So that's...

NIXON: But Anita's not only saying that. She understands when she comes into the bedroom that this girl, Maria, who was a virgin 'til then...

GROSS: Right.

NIXON: ...Has slept with her boyfriend's murderer. Maria, of all people, has just bedded with this young man.

GROSS: Marni Nixon, you dubbed Natalie Wood's part on this duet. What's your experience of this duet?

NIXON: It might have been one of the duets that - and maybe Rita would know - that was planned for me to do all along. So maybe she was singing to my voice during the filming. I've forgotten that completely.

GROSS: You know, what, Marni? I think your voice was on that one.

NIXON: Come to think of it, I don't think she could have even stretched into that. I think it was just the musical directors approved of it. I think I heard her sing it in the rehearsal studio and got a feeling of what it was supposed to be. And then I just recorded it, so we didn't really do a duet together.

GROSS: Now I have to play this duet that we've been talking so much about. So...

NIXON: Now you're going to hear a very Mexican girl (laughter).

GROSS: Right. So imagine on screen we're seeing Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno, but what we're hearing in this duet is Marni Nixon and Betty Wand...

NIXON: Betty Wand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BOY LIKE THAT")

NIXON: (Singing) Oh no, Anita, no, It isn't 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 they're wrong. You should know better. You were in love or so you said. You should know better. I have a love, and it's all that I have right or wrong. What else can I do? I love him. I'm his, and everything he is. I am, too. I have a love, and it's all that I need.

GROSS: 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 Sunday. My interview with Nixon and Rita Moreno was recorded in 2001.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Jason Bourne" starring Matt Damon. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.