One of my favourite films of all time is Singin’ In The Rain. Its most famous scene is of Hollywood star Don (played by Gene Kelly) joyously dancing and singing his way in a silent street, proclaiming his love for the girl next door Kathy (played by Debbie Reynolds). It remains one of the most recognisable scenes in movie history. But perhaps the most romantic moment of the film is towards the end of the picture. Throughout the story, Kathy has been lending her beautiful singing voice to a famous Hollywood actress, Lina (played by Jean Hagen) without receiving any recognition for her work. In the final scene, Lina is on stage lip synching “Singin’ In The Rain” whilst Kathy is behind a curtain dubbing for Lina. Don lifts up the curtain, revealing that it is Kathy, not Lina, who is singing, proclaiming to the audience, “That’s the girl whose voice you heard and loved tonight! She’s the real star of the picture!”
Romantic and swoon-worthy. Good job, Gene.
Ironically, Singin’ In The Rain was released in 1952, during a time when there were many real-life Kathys in the Hollywood industry, most receiving little to no recognition for their vocal contribution to major musicals. Perhaps the most famous Kathy of all was Marni Nixon, who passed away recently on July 24th 2016. Haven’t heard of her? No matter, you have definitely heard her voice. She dubbed for countless actresses, including Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Marylin Monroe in All Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.
I know. Shocking.
Dubbing, known in the industry as “ghosting”, was quite common in the 50’s and in the decades following. Although members of the film industry were well aware of ghost singers, the general public was not. Thanks to Marni, Hepburn and Kerr were both nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award and West Side Story, The King and I, and My Fair Lady were all nominated for Best Picture (West Side Story and My Fair Lady won). But the film credits and the album soundtracks neglected to mention her, and Hollywood executives had her sign a contract that she must never reveal her part in films.
But don’t fret too much for Nixon because she did appear once on film. Here she is as Sister Sophia in the musicals of all musicals, The Sound of Music.
That’s right, Sister Freaking Sophia, a side character no one noticed. The casting director couldn’t even give Nixon the better role of the Reverend Mother, the nun who sings the famous “Climb Every Mountain” song. That role went to actress Peggy Wood who was DUBBED by ghost singer Margery McKay. Because that makes complete sense.
Her role in musicals was eventually revealed to the public by Deborah Kerr (because she was a badass). Interestingly, in an article for the New York Journal-American in 1967, Nixon proudly accredited dubbing as a complicated and technically difficult art form, saying “It’s fascinating, getting inside the actresses you’re singing for. It’s like cutting off the top of their heads and seeing what’s underneath. You have to know how they feel, as well as how they talk, in order to sing as they would sing — if they could sing.” She went on to describe how it took many crew members countless hours to get it all to technically work together and that the process was, to her, an interesting part of the industry. For her part, Nixon spent hours studying the actress’s speech patterns, breath, pronunciation, and sound. Exactness was imperative. Hepburn would even give Nixon a lift in her car to work every day so they could practice Doolittle’s crockery accent. Kerr also worked very closely with Nixon and their blended voices came together impeccably. When Kerr speaks and Nixon sings, you can hardly tell them apart.
In Spain (where people still prefer to watch dubbed films instead of their original language versions), voice doubles are viewed with the same kind of respect as actors. I remember being surprised when one of my Spanish friends emotionally described how he once met “ la voz de Julia Roberts”. She’s the best one out there I think, I recall him saying, you can see that she understands Julia’s lips and gestures!
But, in most countries, voice doubles and ghost singers are a dying art form. Nowadays, absolute authenticity and transparency is more or less expected in every live and pre-recorded performance. Many big name film actors ( Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Ewan McGregor, Renee Zellweger, Chris Pine, Kevin Spacey, Keira Knightley, Amy Adams, Nicole Kidman, and Jeremy Renner to name a few) proudly use their own vocals in films though, in some actors’ case, it’s at their own detriment. Anyone remember Pierce Brosnan’s complete lackluster vocals in Mamma Mia? Or worse, Russell Crowe’s painful rendition in Les Miserables?
The focus on transparency is such that sometimes even respected singers who lip-synch to their own pre-recorded tracks are dragged through the mud because they not viewed as authentically singing. Beyonce once had to staunchly defend herself after the public discovered she had lip-synched (HOW DARE SHE!) the United States national anthem at President Obama’s inauguration.
Artists who practice other mediums in film (such as dance and the martial arts) have come out publicly in the last few years to speak on the subject of artistic authenticity and demand more recognition from the film industry. Stunt doubles in action films are even fighting for an Oscar category so the public can value their contribution. Natalie Portman’s body double during the filming of Black Swan decried what she believed was the unfair amount of recognition that Portman received for “dancing”, claiming it was an insult to the ballet world to claim (as movie producers did) that Portman could learn to dance like a professional ballerina in a year.
Portman perfecting pointe? Like, no.
With the general public now fully coming to terms with ghost singers and stunt doubles, I hope that the many Marni Nixon’s of the film industry are given full credit when credit is due. Their artistic contributions, just like their films, are great.
As for me, I am going to celebrate Marni Nixon’s legacy, and coming out in true Marni Nixon style by sipping on some wine and singing one of her most beloved songs, “I Could Have Danced All Night” Because it was Marni’s voice we’ve always heard and loved, she was the real star of the picture!
Side Note: In case you’re wondering if Debbie Reynolds’s Kathy actually sang in Singin’ In The Rain, the answer is no. Ghost singer Betty Royce did. Royce ghost sang for Reynolds who pretended to ghost sing for Jean Hagen who pretended to sing. Now that’s teamwork!