Though the recording industry is in an uproar over the Milli Villi scandal, lip-syncing--or ghost singing--has been a common practice in the movie industry almost since the advent of talkies.
Marni Nixon is the best known of the ghost singers. An accomplished soloist in her own right, her lilting vocals can be heard on the sound tracks of many classic screen musicals. It was Nixon, not Deborah Kerr, who sang “Shall We Dance” and other Rodgers and Hammerstein standards in 1956’s “The King & I.”
Nixon also supplied the vocals for Natalie Wood’s Maria in 1961’s multi-Oscar-winning “West Side Story.” (“Twin Peaks’ ” Richard Beymer, who played Tony, also was dubbed.) Though Audrey Hepburn did her own singing in the hit 1957 musical “Funny Face,” Nixon warbled “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Rain in Spain” for Hepburn’s Eliza in the Oscar-winning 1964 “My Fair Lady.” Nixon did get a chance to come out from behind the camera in 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” in which she played a singing nun.
“I was asked not to say anything at all when I dubbed Deborah Kerr,” recalled Nixon from her New York home Friday. “There were definite restrictions for that. I think they thought it would give away the illusion. I also dubbed in Deborah for ‘An Affair to Remember.’
“It was a gradual kind of discovery (that I was doing the singing). Deborah Kerr, herself, gave me some credit right away on ‘The King & I.’ By the time I was doing ‘West Side Story’ a few years later, everyone was questioning that Natalie Wood could sing that well. By the time I did ‘My Fair Lady,’ I didn’t have to say anything. You weren’t ‘in’ if you didn’t know it was me.”
Hollywood also kept it a secret that ‘40s movie goddess Rita Hayworth didn’t do her own singing. She may have been Fred Astaire’s favorite dance partner, her singing voice was less than satisfactory. It was Nan Wynn who sang the standards “I’m Old-Fashioned” and “Long Ago and Far Away” in the films “You Were Never Lovelier” and “Cover Girl,” and Anita Ellis who performed the hot “Put the Blame on Mame” for Hayworth in the box-office hit “Gilda.”
Cyd Charisse was another top dancing star who lip-synced her way through numerous MGM musicals. India Adams supplied her vocals in such films as Vincente Minnelli’s “The Band Wagon,” and Adams also performed the musical numbers for Joan Crawford in the melodrama “Torch Song.”
Dancer Leslie Caron did do her own singing in 1953’s “Lili,” but she was ghosted by Betty Wand in 1958’s Oscar-winner “Gigi.”
Ann Blyth’s beautiful soprano voice was perfect for such movie operettas as “Rose Marie” and “Kismet,” but not for “The Helen Morgan Story,” the 1957 bio-pic about the legendary torch singer. Pop singer Gogi Grant, of “The Wayward Wind” fame, supplied the vocals.
If Morgan had been alive when her life story was produced, she probably would have done her own singing. Al Jolson insisted that actor Larry Parks lip-sync to his singing in “The Jolson Story” and “Jolson Sings Again.” Likewise, Susan Hayward was ghosted by Jane Froman in her screen biography “With a Song in My Heart” and by Lillian Roth for her life story “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.”
Several actors also have been ghosted. Giorgio Tozzi sang such Rodgers and Hammerstein ballads as “Some Enchanted Evening” for Rossano Brazzi in “South Pacific.” John Kerr also was dubbed for “South Pacific,” as was Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music.”
Perhaps the craziest case of ghost singing can be found in 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” In this classic spoof of the early sound days of Hollywood, a young starlet (Debbie Reynolds) dubs in the dialogue and vocals for a top star (Jean Hagen), who has a voice that would shatter glass. Ironically, Hagen ended up lip-syncing herself. A singer, Hagen actually dubbed in the vocals for Reynolds.