Friday, October 06, 2017

how to handle a woman, hollywood-style

The latest, way-too-familiar Hollywood story of a powerful man exploiting women who are powerless coincided with my renewed interest in movie dubbing. While your average modern moviegoer is transfixed by the miracles created by CGI, my fascination has long been with the curious art of dubbing, specifically the dubbing of singing in movie musicals.

So, while Harvey preoccupied everyone else, I wasted the good part of several days perusing You Tube for clips of who-dubbed-who in screen musicals, prompted by my previous essay, “whose voice is it anyway?”

Replacing one performer's voice with another's is unquestionably an odd bit of movie trickery, especially given that vocal delivery is central to an actor's achievement. But when the dubbing of singing in musicals is done right (which, admittedly, has been rare), it can be absolutely magical.

Anyway, I found a terrific two-parter - ”Dubbing Through the Decades, Part 1” (March 2nd, 2013) and ”Dubbing Through the Decades, Part 2,” (August 31st, 2016). This was pig heaven for me. Screening one clip after another, I picked up on something. While the singing for both men and women has been routinely dubbed in musicals for years, there has been more media interest when an actress is dubbed - more negative attention.

And the scrutiny has been more intensive when the actress in question is clearly a major player. There were three such situations in the 1960s when Natalie Wood, Rosalind Russell and Audrey Hepburn - all A-list actresses - were dubbed in film musicals. No one cared that Nancy Kwan was dubbed for "Flower Drum Song" in 1961 - I suppose she wasn't major enough - but the implied failings of Wood, Russell and Hepburn were gleefully reported.

Exacerbating matters, the actresses' respective studios made no attempts to protect them, even though each star was highly paid and important to the film in question. Someone cynical (like me) might see this as a form of control, using humiliation to keep a star - a female star - in place.

In each case, the actress signed on with the understanding that she would do her own singing and, also in each case, the studio reneged on its promise and brought in a ghost singer, reportedly behind  the star's back.

That singer was usually - you got it! - Marni Nixon, the bane of '60s movie musicals. Making no attempt to sound like the actress in question, Nixon dubbed Wood in "West Side Story" (1961) and Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" (1964), after both actresses trained, rehearsed and recorded their songs.

Wood and Hepburn were betrayed by their studios, despite being crucial to their respective films, ostensibly because their voices weren't "perfect." But there are times when perfection isn't necessary - or even important. You Tube clips of both stars doing their own singing underline this point.

Wood is surprisingly good, given her small voice and the demands of the "West Side Story" score, impressively mastering even high notes. She sings sincerely (as seen here), with much heart, and whatever tentative wobble there is totally fits the charming character she's playing.

It should be noted that just about everyone in "West Side Story" was dubbed (with the exception of George Chakiris, who does little singing in the film) - Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and Russ Tamblyn, whose singing was dubbed by fellow cast member Tucker Smith. (It's disconcerting to watch Tamblyn and Smith sing and hear the same exact voice.)

But Natalie's dubbed voice got all the attention.

Dubbing Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" was, arguably, the biggest mistake of all - largely because Hepburn had one of the most distinctive speaking voices, unexpectedly husky for so frail a woman. For me, nothing is worse than to see Hepburn open her mouth and then hear Nixon's perfect but soulless voice come out of it. Nixon's singing for Hepburn is the only flaw in an otherwise pristine movie musical. Again, Hepburn's singing (as seen here) is perfectly fine, particularly on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"

She sounds like ... Audrey Hepburn.

Hepburn was Jack Warner's first and only choice to play Eliza Doolittle and he pursued her until he wore her down. Warner reportedly kept offering her money and more money - and she kept saying no until the payoff was too large to ignore. She said yes, she played the role beautifully, she recorded her songs dutifully and then she was criticized by the press relentlessly when it was revealed that her singing was dubbed.

Rosalind Russell's adventures with "Gypsy" (1962) are interesting. She and her husband Frederick Brisson wanted to option Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir to make a straight drama, but the book was tied up with the stage musical which Warner Bros. had purchased. The two forces came together and Russell was signed to play Madam Rose. Given that she had already sung in the film "The Girl Rush" and in the stage and TV productions of "Wonderful Town," it was assumed that she could handle the Styne-Sondheim score, which she recorded with vocal coach Harper McKay. If she could sing on a Broadway stage night after night, why not on film?

But the "Gypsy" score was written specifically to fit the big, brassy voice of its original stage star, Ethel Merman, and Russell wasn't a belter. Still, she was a pro and sang them well (as seen here) - or well enough.

In the end, Warners brought in Lisa Kirk to do most of the singing and then did something creative, interpolating the two voices. Kirk, who does an uncanny vocal impersonation of Russell, does most of the heavy lifting, with Russell herself singing "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" (live, no less), "Together, Wherever We Got" (subsequently deleted from the film), a lovely (live) reprise of "Small World" and the first part of "Rose's Turn."(Natalie Wood, also in "Gypsy," did her own singing this time out.)

In terms of vocal accuracy, Kirk's achievement on "Gypsy" remains one of the two best examples of movie-musical dubbing, the other being Nixon's work on "The King and I" (1956). When Twentieth Century-Fox was ready to film the musical, it cast Maureen O'Hara, a good actress who could actually sing, in the role of Anna. It was perfect casting, until composer Richard Rodgers balked. (He was turned off by the fact that O'Hara was then currently in what he considered an "inferior" pirate movie.)

Fox then opted for Deborah Kerr, who couldn't sing, and brought in Nixon who, on this one occasion, succeeded in approximating the sound and inflections of the star: The voice coming out of Kerr's mouth when she sings sounds like her own. A year later, Nixon also dubbed a song that Kerr sang in Fox's "An Affair to Remember" (1957) and she became the studios’ go-to person for voiceover work in the 1950s and '60s.

Wood, Russell and Hepburn were all disappointed and angry about the dubbing, particularly as all three worked hard to surmount intimidating scores. But there were other performers - some already known as singers - who were burned by the studios. Case in point: Juanita Hall.

Hall originated the role of Bloody Mary in "South Pacific" and played and sang it several hundred times during its Broadway run. One of the highlights of the show was her rendition of  "Bali Ha'i." She also appears in the 1958 film version, where she pre-recorded her two songs.

But Richard Rodgers (again) was unhappy and insisted that her vocals be dubbed by the more operatic Muriel Smith, who played the role in London. Rodgers thought that Hall's voice had become too harsh. Huh? She's playing a native. It makes no sense that she sound like a trained soprano.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Hall's reading of "Bali Ha'i" (as seen here) that's available on You Tube. I certainly prefer it to Smith's.

The dubbing of Hall was unnecessary and, in the case of Wood, Russell and Hepburn, I would have preferred to hear the actresses themselves.

Whether or not a performer is a great singer is of little importance to me. I would rather see a genuine Movie Star as the lead in a musical than a trained singer without much screen presence. It was a kick to see (and hear) Marlon Brando in "Guys and Dolls," Elizabeth Taylor in "A Little Night Music"," Clint Eastwood in "Paint Your Wagon," Julia Roberts in "Everyone Says I Love You" and Robert DeNiro in "New York, New York." To repeat myself, there are times when perfection isn't necessary - or important.

I'm a majority of one here, particularly among other musical enthusiasts - and the general moviegoing public. Audiences react weirdly when an actor who isn't known for singing actually has the audacity to sing on screen.

They tend to laugh, nervously.

And the Hollywood studio heads traditionally thought otherwise about non-singers, too. When they couldn't secure a Doris Day for a musical, someone who could sing and also had box-office clout, the inevitable option was to hire another Big Star, whether she could sing or not - so long as she was a draw - and then dub her, grudgingly, behind her back.

Just another way to control, humiliate and keep an actress in line.

Nothing new really.

Notes in Passing: Marni Nixon was no Hollywood outsider. She was married during her reign as voiceover specialist to legendary film-score composer Ernest Gold. A confidentiality clause was a given, to keep everything hush-hush, but the Nixon name became familiar when Kerr herself revealed "the secret." In interviews, Nixon came across as someone who saw herself as the victim of ungrateful actresses. She would snidely comment how Wood and Hepburn weren't "good enough" and about how angry they were about being dubbed, making no apparent attempt to empathize with them or consider their point of view.  On one occasion, she proclaims, "Audrey Hepburn was not a major singer!"

Poor form.

And, no, she did not dub Marilyn Monroe's voice in "Gerntlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), as has been occasionally and erroneously reported. Nixon merely provided the operatic "No, no, no, no!" line that leads into "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Marilyn took over from there.

Also, re the "South Pacific"/You Tube clip linked here, there's a brief bit of dialogue that was cut either before the film's release or after its roadshow engagements in which Ken Clark (as Stewpot) says to Ray Walston (Luther Billis), "Never mind, big dealer, I like you. Saxy!," while he strokes Walston's arm. The moment is brief and stands out because the quality is visually inferior (washed out) to the scene that contains it. Fairly randy.

Why are these kids singing?

Did you know that all the Von Trapp kids in "The Sound of Music" (1965) were dubbed? Crazy, right? I mean, why were these kids hired in the first place?  Maybe I have a double standard. I can understand why a studio would dub the singing voice of a major star for a musical but why seven kids actors who are interchangeable with at least 7.000 other kid actors?

I mean, those Von Trapp kids weren't that cute.
* * * * *
(from top) 

~Audrey Hepburn singing "Woudn't It Be Loverly?" in "My Fair Lady"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1964©

~Natalie Wood singing "Tonight" in "West Side Story"
 ~photography: United Artists 1961©

~Rosalind Russell singing "Small World" in "Gypsy"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~The Von Trapp children singing "So Long, Farewell" in "The Sound of Music"
 ~photography: Twenieth Century-Fox 1965©


Alex said...

Great post, Joe. The sad thing is that these films live on with the dubbed voices and the soundtracks of WSS and Fair Lady feature Nixon, while the tracks of the original stars are gone.

Sheila said...

No one made a fuss when Giorgio Tozzi dubbed Rossano Brazzi in "South Pacific."

Theresa said...

those old moguls did a lot of things back in the day. How about all of the names they changed? Power corrupts, whether in entertainment, politics or anything else. Guess I preferred being ignorant about this dubbing stuff.

Joanne said...

I was trying to describe Marni Nixon’s voice and couldn’t find the right words, but you captured it. I was saying that I know it’s a “good” voice, a trained voice, but yet, something’s missing. Was that what they were looking for when they used her?