Director Kenny Ortega remembers that Bette Midler’s portrayal of Winifred Sanderson in Hocus Pocus wasn’t initially to Disney’s liking, despite the fact that it’s now a cherished, yearly classic of Halloween movies.
The studio was reluctant to support Midler’s transformation from a glamorous, Oscar-nominated Hollywood star of The Rose to a rollicking sorceress terrorizing children, according to Ortega, who says he let the central cast, which includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, and Midler, find the tone of their characters (a trio of evil Salem witches brought back from the dead, 300 years after being executed) through their own methods.
“When Disney first saw what Bette wanted to do…” Ortega says, trailing off before finishing his thought. “They were like, ‘Uh, we’re not quite sure this is the direction we want you to go in,’ and I think Bette was [like], ‘Well, this is the direction I want to go in. If you want me to be the actress, you’ve got to bend here.'”
When contacted for comment, a Disney spokesperson verified Ortega’s recollection of the response from the studio regarding Midler’s performance. The director also praised Midler’s perseverance, saying that she strove to conceal her characteristic looks on purpose and that she honed her portrayal of Winifred “in the mirror” and through costumes.
While Ortega recalls the process as vibrant and enjoyable for Midler, it was a little more daunting for the suits behind the project.
“I think she was maybe a bit goofier and wacky, wild, the exaggerated character maybe frightened people, because they couldn’t see the whole movie that was in front of it, and why Bette felt so comfortable,” he says, citing “the absurdity of what she looked like” as jarring to those that were familiar with her star persona. “I just think the makeup covered her up, that Bette got lost underneath it all, and I think that’s what Bette wanted to do. She wanted to surrender herself into the wild character, and that she wasn’t recognizable. I think that scared people.”
Ortega claims that after seeing Midler in action on set, Disney finally gave in.
“Eventually, they relaxed, and the first dailies that came in,” Ortega says. “Everybody was laughing and happy.”
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— Bette Midler: Bootlegbetty.com (@BootlegBette) October 27, 2023