“You probably don’t know Marni Nixon’s face, but you will know her voice,” says Alexandra Pollard in The Independent. The singer’s “trilly, gleaming soprano” was dubbed over Natalie Wood’s singing in 1961’s West Side Story, and over Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady. Nixon, who initially worked in opera, became a “ghost singer” when she discovered she could eerily mimic the timbre of an actress’s speaking voice in song. But despite her work being highly successful, Nixon was “paid next to nothing”, denied credit, and sworn to secrecy.
When Natalie Wood filmed West Side Story, the studio kept her in the dark about it. Wood recorded her songs, “orchestra and all”, with the producers knowing full well that they’d throw it out afterwards and record Nixon. She was only told when the film was “safely in the can”, and duly flew into a terrible rage. Things were more transparent with Audrey Hepburn, who would coach Nixon in Cockney pronunciation while driving to set in her limousine.
Nixon found replicating actresses’ feelings fascinating. “It’s like cutting off the top of their heads and seeing what’s underneath,” she told the New York Journal-American in 1964. But in 1981 she embarked on her own nightclub residency – finally singing the songs she helped make famous under her own, previously unknown name.