Six Damn Fine Degrees #20: Dubbed and snubbed – the secret voices of Hollywood

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Question: Do you think this is actually Audrey Hepburn singing the wonderful “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffanys (discussed in last week’s post by Alan)?

Answer: Not quite so fast!

Because this week’s post offers a great chance to get into the complicated yet fascinating relationship between (star) image and sound in moviemaking until at least the 1960s. To put it simply: Who we see and who we hear in these movies often wasn’t the same person – especially when characters burst into song! And instead of becoming famous, these actors/singers and (more often!) actresses were forbidden from going public, sometimes signing draconic contracts buying their silence while the stars basked in their talents.

The same cannot really be said about two of Hollywood’s most underrated secret stars, to whom this post is a tribute: Marni Nixon and Nikki van der Zyl, who passed away just two weeks ago! Without them, our impressions of many silky-voiced heroine and spritely musical character would not have been the same. Let’s shed light on two voices that made us dream and swoon, yet who could only step out of the shadow many years after the fact.

Marni Nixon voiced everything from Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember to Natalie Wood (West Side Story) and Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady), much to the chagrin of some of the redubbed actresses, who felt they could have done it themselves.

Marni Nixon (1930 – 2016) could have easily become a star herself. Born into a Californian musical family, she had the voice and the looks of a Broadway star, but when The King and I (1956) came along and its star Deborah Kerr was supposed to break into song, it soon became apparent that she would need help. Help from Marni Nixon, who reportedly worked very closely with Kerr and was therefore completely in sync with her movements, breathing and voice. She had already started as Marilyn Monroe’s singing voice in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953, and when Kerr needed to sing again in the heartbreaking An Affair to Remember (1957), Nixon had her back again.

Nixon’s dubbing career really took off four years later when Natalie Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story needed replacement, much to the chagrin of Wood herself, who did not find out about her voice replacement until after shooting the movie. Still, Nixon succeeded admirably well in imitating Maria’s voice and supposed Puerto Rican accent. History almost repeated itself when Audrey Hepburn was cast as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964) and expected to sing the part herself. Her casting had been highly controversial among fans of the Broadway musical, as its star, Julie Andrews, had been snubbed (she gloriously recovered thanks to her double fame in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music the following year). Andrews would have had a field day singing the part, but Hepburn’s take was seen as subpar and Nixon was brought in again (isn’t it ironic that Nixon even resembles Andrews, much more so than Hepburn?).

Nixon’s luck turned for the better thanks to the next Julie Andrews film, by the way: She was finally cast in a role seen and heard on the screen: in The Sound of Music – one of the singing nuns. Since then, she has finally been able to spill the beans on her involvement in redubbing the star and has become a reappreciated secret legend of Hollywood.

The story of Nikki van der Zyl (1935 – March 6th, 2021) is a little different. Born into a German Jewish family that had to leave Europe by 1939, she settled in England and became a trained actress and singer. She came to the attention of Bond producers Broccoli and Saltzman when they had cast beautiful Swiss girl Ursula Andress as the first Bond lady in 007’s first adventure Dr. No. Her Swiss Bernese accent, however, was rather funny than sensual and so van der Zyl’s German accent came in handy. She repeatedly dubbed Andress in her later films (She, The Blue Max) – with one notable exception: When Andress was cast in the terrible spoof version of Casino Royale, her Vesper Lynd features her original Swiss accent – according to van der Zyl, because the producers believed it would add to the comedy! (It did not.)

Van der Zyl not only revoiced Andress in Dr. No but the entire female cast (with the exception of Miss Moneypenny)! She went on to revoice Bond women in nine of the series altogether – replacing the Cockney accent of Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, the French accents of Claudine Auger (Thunderball) and Corinne Clery (Moonraker), Mie Hama, who couldn’t speak a word of English before being among the largely Japanese cast of You Only Live Twice, and even partially Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die. Whenever there was a beautiful girl who lacked acting chops or language skills, van der Zyl became the go-to person. Outside of the Bond universe, this included Claudia Cardinale (La Fayette), Eva Renzi (Funeral in Berlin), Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C.) and even Scottish singer Lulu in The Cherry Picker. Amazingly, she managed to give each of these women a distinct voice, timbre and accent, so much so that you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s her unless you knew (which you do now!).

Nikki van der Zyl did not just voice every single Bond girl in Dr. No but went on to be a voice in every Bond adventure until the late ’70s. Beside this, she was hired over and over again whenever a foreign accent was too strong or a voice deemed unsuitable for what filmmakers had in mind.

There is only one Hollywood movie who somewhat captured the unfairness of all this – Singing in the Rain, the 1952 Stanley Donen musical comedy set in 1927 (and another connection to a recent Six Degrees post!), when silent movies were suddenly replaced by “talkies” and their stars stars more often than not were redubbed due to the deemed awkwardness of their actual voices. In the movie, a young Debbie Reynolds steps in for Lina Lamont (played by a deliciously annoying Jean Hagen) but is then pulled from the shadow by a bedazzled Gene Kelly, who wants to end her serfdom and make her famous.

In a recent interview, she has also cleared up one of the most debated issue concerning her role in Dr. No: yes, she was also the singing voice of Ursula Andress when emerging from the sea like Boticelli’s Venus, humming the infamous “Underneath the Mango Tree”. In the same interview, she also recalled her fond collaboration with German actor Gert Fröbe on his starring role as Auric Goldfinger. The two grew so close that he tried to get her to work with him on his next international film (Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines in 1965) but she – always the professional – modestly declined: she felt he had learnt enough English from her by then (he was eventually dubbed in Goldfinger by English actor Michael Collins nonetheless, much to the disappointment of van der Zyl). Her role in the Bond world has since thankfully been reappreciated.

These are just two incredible examples that show filmmaking was indeed (as our friend Julie has recently put it) even more a composite art than we would expect, but also testimony to the power of studios and producers over the people they employed. Rather than become stars in their own right, Nixon and van der Zyl were asked to shelve a career of their own and instead earned an industry reputation and a mediocre salary at best. It’s satisfying to see, though, that the increased interest in movie making secrets and thanks to social media, these women have finally come to the forefront and have received their place in the sun at an older age.

When Nikki van der Zyl passed away just two weeks ago, there was an outpouring of admiration among Bond and movie fans alike, as if she herself had been a Bond girl or movie star. May we forever think of her when we hear Honey or Domino emerge from the ocean, Kissy climb that volcano or Jill roll over for Bond before becoming Goldfinger’s golden girl!

So back to our question: Yes, it truly is Audrey Hepburn’s own voice singing “Moon River”! Little did she know then that just three years later, what proved to be a lovely singing voice in Breakfast at Tiffany’s would be deemed inappropriate for My Fair Lady! And who would step in to re-dub all her scenes (no, not Julie Andrews)? It was of course an uncredited Marni Nixon!

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