Odds are, you couldn’t pick Marni Nixon out of a lineup, but you know her voice very well. The 85-year-old soprano is the secret behind Deborah Kerr’s high notes in An Affair to Remember, Natalie Wood‘s “pretty” pop in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn‘s delightful lyricism in My Fair Lady.
Just in time for the limited theatrical run of My Fair Lady, and the film’s 50th anniversary DVD release, Nixon talked to PEOPLE about her storied career – in front of and behind the curtain – and working with the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Hepburn, herself.
Nixon had plenty of time to get to know the elegant actress during the film’s shoot, since they were carpool buddies. “She picked me up in her limousine every morning and took me to the studio,” says Nixon. “I sat in on her singing lessons, so I could hear not only the Cockney and the upper-class British, which are two different voices. But I also had to get her very unique speech patterns, so I had to listen very carefully so I could catch it.”
And was Hepburn as genteel off-screen as she was on? Apparently, yes. “She was just a delightful person. Very intellectual and fun and respectful – full of sense of humor,” says Nixon. “Yes, very real and warm. It was wonderful.”
But Hepburn was also in a bit of competition with Nixon, as she wanted to use her own singing voice in the film. “She kept sneaking into the sound stage after I finished dubbing and would say, ‘I think I can do myself better,’ ” Nixon remembers. “They gave me tapes of her singing, and I could hear her saying [to herself,] ‘Oh darn, I think I can do better. Maybe I can’t.’ She was really hard on herself. But she kept trying.”
“She was trying very hard to use as much of herself as possible,” recalls Nixon, who explains that Eliza’s working-class singing voice is Hepburn’s own, while her posh sound is Nixon’s. But in spite of Hepburn’s diligence in trying to get her own voice in the film, Nixon adds that there was never any tension between the two of them.
“No, never! Never! It was only appreciation. And she was trying to be as helpful as she could to tell me how to pronounce certain things and approve of it, to make sure it sounded like her – because if she couldn’t do it, then she’d work harder to get the pronunciation into me. She was spectacular that way.”
Not everyone was as grateful for Nixon’s superior soprano. Deborah Kerr took credit for singing everything but the high notes, “never mind that I sang it all myself,” says Nixon, while Natalie Wood stormed off of West Side Story, incensed that her voice wasn’t considered up to snuff and that audiences would know it. “She was nice but very angry that the word got out and she walked off the picture,” says Nixon. “She came back and apologized, I guess.”
But to hear Nixon tell it, it was inevitable that she’d be unmasked as Hollywood’s golden voice. “It was all very secretive when I did the dubbing for The King and I and West Side Story, but everybody in the industry knew it was happening,” she says. “The orchestra members don’t know you were supposed to keep it secret. But it gradually got around.”
With it came overdue recognition for Nixon. She landed an onscreen role as Sister Sophia, one of the singing nuns in The Sound of Music, voiced Grandmother Fa in Mulan, and performed in The King and I and My Fair Lady onstage. “I tried to do them as me, not as Deborah Kerr or Audrey Hepburn,” says Nixon. “I wanted the films to be their performance.”
Fifty years after her legendary turn in My Fair Lady, Nixon can justifiably say it’s “our” performance.