It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Marni Nixon, beloved voice of Hollywood's supersized musicals of the 50s and 60s has died of breast cancer at 86. It was a long and good and musical life, if never celebrated enough by the culture she gave so much to. It had been our long held dream to see her given an Honorary Oscar which must now be a dream unfulfilled. Because I don't have the words today, I thought I'd share a piece I wrote ten years ago on how special Marni Nixon was to me, a baby cinephile growing up with musicals as my favorite form of cinematic bliss.
Marni Nixon is my Kathy Selden
by Nathaniel R
Toward the end of Singin' in the Rain (1952), which chronicles Hollywood's seismic shift from silent films to sound production, a hilariously dim and screechy movie star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) gets her comeuppance. She has cruelly locked the sweet voiced Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) into a contract to provide her a suitable movie voice. Lamont is after self-preservation: she can't make sound movies with her own unappealing voice, but she also cruelly takes pleasure in preventing Kathy from pursuing stardom. At a live performance Kathy stands behind a curtain, her dreams in tatters, as she sings for Lina. But Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) pulls the curtain on the act in progress, rescuing his new girl from obscurity and dooming his former co-star to a fast fade.
Singin' in the Rain is many things: a true musical masterpiece, a stellar romantic comedy, and the best movie Hollywood ever made about Hollywood (give or take Sunset Blvd). It's a completely absorbing viewing experience but for this: Every time I see it my mind drifts away to Marni Nixon during this particular scene. Kathy's story isn't exactly Marni's. Marni wasn't forced into submission as the silents were dying. But she was the songbird woman behind the curtain for beloved movie musicals and she was born in 1930 as the silents were emitting their death rattle (Hollywood studios had halted silent film production by 1929. Only a few emerged in movie houses of 30s). Marni Nixon was to be a famous voice but not a famous face ...just like the almost-fate of the fictional Kathy Selden.