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Building the Perfect Performance

July 11, 2010

Back when musicals were a staple of Hollywood, many stars took a turn appearing in them, even though some of those stars could not sing. Occasionally someone like Rex Harrison could get away with talking their way through their songs, but otherwise it was up to “ghosts” to fill in. One of the greatest of these pinch-hitting vocalists was Marni Nixon:

She provided the singing voices for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, among others. She received no screen credit for any of these performances. The only time she was actually seen in a movie musical was the small part of Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music, but among her many memorable vocal contributions is this clip. “Show Me” from My Fair Lady captures Nixon’s passionate delivery, full of urgency. And Hepburn holds up her end well, smoothly handling the tongue-twisting passages that would be a challenge for nearly anyone to lip-sync to:

With the right help, actors can seem to play instruments, shoot pool, do card tricks, sink baskets, fight, and risk their lives in any number of ways. And, of course, dance. For example, Jennifer Beals in Flashdance relied on Marine Jahan to do her dancing through most of the movie. The climactic audition number also brought in acrobat Sharon Shapiro to handle the leaping, and breakdancer Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon (yes, a guy) for the backspin. Thanks to clever lighting and editing, four bodies merge into one dazzling dancer. Sadly, none of those three body doubles received screen credit for that work, although Crazy Legs was credited for his other appearance, as himself with the Rock Steady Crew, earlier in the film.

Most of the characters in Labyrinth are puppets who have several members of Jim Henson‘s team controlling the different parts of their bodies simultaneously. But the puppets aren’t the only ones who operate this way. Here we see David Bowie’s Goblin King perform some mystical moves with a crystal sphere:

As it turns out, those hands actually belong to juggler Michael Moschen, who does these manipulations without benefit of wires or optical tricks. Here’s what he looks like when he has a chance to stretch out and bring in other sorts of moves:

That’s a real glass sphere, and it’s heavy, and nothing is keeping it from falling except his own skill. Plus, he had to work while crouching behind Bowie and reaching around, so he couldn’t even see what he was doing and had to depend completely on touch and memory. Combined with Bowie’s natural charm and presence, and his ability to maintain those qualities when someone else’s hands are up in his face, these two performers create a timeless moment that neither one could have achieved alone.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. evmaroon permalink
    July 11, 2010 9:31 am

    At the risk of revealing my dorkiness, I was totally obsessed with Broadway musicals as a kid, and I insisted to my parents that the woman singing on my recordings of The King and I and West Side Story was the same person, even though the cast listing, of course, read differently. They, not being the epic researcher that Heather is, dismissed me like the young pupil that I was. When I found out, in college, about Ms. Nixon, I called them straight away to prove how right I’d been, years earlier. And like parents often do, they denied ever even having the argument. Arrgh!

  2. July 11, 2010 10:09 am

    Oh. my. god. Thank you so much for this. Like Ev, I too was obsessed with musicals as a kid/teen. I never thought to connect the performer on West Side Story and The King and I. Though, to be fair, this seems exactly the kind of thing La Mommie would point out to me.

  3. July 11, 2010 10:53 am

    I love this post. I tend to obsess over Marni Nixon’s work and how she never got the credit she deserved, to the point of arguing with a theatre major(!) about whether or not Audrey Hepburn did her own singing in My Fair Lady.

    Speaking of My Fair Lady, part of Rex HArrison’s thing when filming was that he absolutely refused to lip sync. He felt that since he’d been performing on stage so much, and was accustomed to the freedom that the stage can provide, he would never be able to totally match his facial expressions and mouth movements to anything prerecorded. Which makes me love Rex Harrison all the more.

    I remember watching a special on the Disney channel during one of their free preview weekends when I was little that focused on all of the behind-the-scenes stuff for Labyrinth. I remember being amazed at the crystal ball/bubbles scene in the movie. Then when I found out that there was a guy doing that with heavy glass balls who COULDN’T SEE WHAT HE WAS DOING, it made the scene all the more magical to me.

    Awesome post! Now I’m all geeked out..

  4. July 11, 2010 4:51 pm

    @ev: You have a very perceptive ear!

    @snarky: I never caught it either until it was pointed out to me. Nixon was so good at delivering whatever style of song was asked of her.

    @eieioj: Yeah, I totally respect Rex Harrison for insisting on that. I usually prefer to hear notes where notes were written, but he brought it off so well that I wouldn’t change a thing.

  5. July 11, 2010 5:51 pm

    If I’m not mistaken (and I don’t think I am) Ms. Nixon also provided Rita Moreno’s singing voice in West Side Story.

  6. July 11, 2010 9:21 pm

    My mom was the one to tell me about Mrs. Nixon! Every time My Fair Lady or WSS came on, she would say, “Oh! That’s Marnie Nixon! She did all the great singing for movie musicals you know…”

    This was an awesome post!

  7. July 11, 2010 10:20 pm

    Funnily enough, I just got the soundtrack to the Rex Harrison version of Doctor Dolittle, specifically because of a similar session singer, Diana Lee… on that disc she dubbed Samantha Eggar, then went on to cover Mrs. Bucket in the song “Cheer Up Charlie” for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and then did the same for Liv Ullman in Bacharach’s score for “Lost Horizon!” Although I have never seen a picture of Ms. Lee from those days… I’m dying to know more about her, and if there are other recordings she appeared on. Even IMDb hasn’t helped me with that!

    Thanks for a great tribute to an unsung (pun intended) Hollywood star!

  8. July 11, 2010 10:45 pm

    Oh, I suppose I should talk about Michael Moschen, since I am a professional juggler: the skill he demonstrated is referred to as “contact juggling,” where you can and do use your entire body at times to keep a ball moving, and the “contact” is the fact that you rarely, if ever in your routine, have the ball in the air. It is its own form of juggling, and a very challenging one. But Moschen is one of the savants of manipulation, and there are dozens of performances of his work out there. He serves as both an inspiration to all other jugglers, and as a depressant, as who among us could even approach that level of ability!

  9. July 12, 2010 6:38 am

    @redlami: You’re partly right. Marni Nixon did provide Anita’s voice on “Tonight”, but Rita Moreno did most of her own singing in that movie.

    @nycpenpusher: Very well said. Michael Moschen is a phenomenon all to himself. I saw him on the PBS Great Performances episode “In Motion with Michael Moschen”, at one time available on VHS but long out of print. Every segment of the program is its own unique wonder, but this sequence is truly hypnotic:

  10. July 12, 2010 7:03 am

    @heathereff, thank you for clearing that up! For years I’ve wondered why Ms. Moreno — a Grammy and Tony (as well as Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar) Award winner — would have needed someone to sing for her. I imagine she didn’t have the range for that particular song.

  11. Alyx Vesey permalink
    July 12, 2010 9:49 am

    Love this post, in part because I’m a huge musical theatre fan. Part of the pleasure I derived from movie musicals was detecting pinch-hitters like Marni Nixon. This perhaps spoke to my later interests in unearthing the mechanics of film production, which are often obscured from audiences. I think it also makes clear — as you suggest — how inherently collaborative the movie-making process is, despite ongoing claims toward sole authorship.

  12. July 13, 2010 6:47 am

    @Alyx – I like learning about the mechanics of film production, which is why it was so nifty when DVDs started coming out with commentaries and “making of” featurettes. Knowing how a cinematographer lit a 360-degree tracking shot makes a film all the more enjoyable for me.

    Yes, I agree, movies are inherently collaborative. I guess the auteur debate is still going on out there somewhere, but for me it’s settled. Even if the director has total control, they didn’t create everything on that screen. Not to mention, some of my favorite films have more than one director: “An American in Paris”, “It’s Always Fair Weather”, “Chicken Run”, “Performance” (1970), “Antz”, “Bound”, “The Dark Crystal”, and as it turns out, “West Side Story”.

  13. July 14, 2010 12:53 pm

    I’m late to this party, but I love this post too. I remember being so fascinated with learning that Audrey Hepburn didn’t sing, it was disillusioning in a way that made me hopeful — I was sort of relieved to learn that she wasn’t that pretty AND that talented. It made me feel better that she had flaws. And one of my favorite games is spotting acting/stunt/body doubles in movies, not because it’s a bad thing, often it’s to marvel at how seamless they make it look! Like the Labyrinth trick, impressive on it’s own, but even more under such constraints. Many of my favorite movies have some Houdini in them.

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