Sunshine Back in the Limelight

Sunshine Back in the Limelight

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Dec 10th 2018

The story that premiered to record network ratings for CBS on Friday November 9, 1973 was not a typical movie of the week. Based on the diaries of a young wife and mother in the Pacific Northwest stricken with a terminal form of bone cancer, it had as its contradictory emotional center a character by turns caring, hurtful, determined, selfish, narcissistic and dour. But her free-spirited determination to face the end in her fashion – sans drastic and incapacitating surgery – struck a chord in the audiences and reviewers who might have expected a reprise of the glossier Love Story (1970), a box-office blockbuster of three holiday seasons prior, but were pulled up short by how much rawer and deeper the storytelling delved, messier, more natural and powerfully poignant. 

Adapted by Carol Sobieski (Family, Sarah, Plain and Tall, Fried Green Tomatoes), Sunshine, John J. O’Connor wrote inThe New York Times, “was suggested by the journals of Jacquelyn Helton, a 20-year-old woman who died of cancer. The journals, rambling compilations of thoughts and messages, were designed as a legacy for her husband and 2-year-old daughter. The basic ingredients of the story, obviously, could keep several soap operas in business for years. There is one big difference. The production has been given time and care. The direction by [subsequent four-time Emmy® winner] Joseph Sargent, the photography by [subsequent two-time Emmy® winner] Bill Butler, the editing by Bud Small and Richard M. Sprague and all the performances are outstanding. As Kate, a beautiful newcomer named Cristina Raines is superb, turning the character into a complicated mix of helplessness and bitterness, even viciousness. Cliff DeYoung, who played the blind Vietnam veteran in Sticks and Bones, is equally impressive as Sam, the not overly bright nice guy with impeccable instincts. Brenda Vaccaro as Dr. Gillman [who gives Kate a tape recorder as a therapeutic aid that evolves into a life-affirming tool] and especially Meg Foster as Nora, an offbeat neighbor and sexual refuge for Sam, head the rest of a splendid cast. The production, some of which was shot at magnificent British Columbia locations, generally stays clear of easy manipulation. There is no suspense about Kate’s death. The story opens with her ashes being scattered on a mountainside. The focus is kept on Kate’s insisting to die ‘on my own clock’ on the uncomfortable fact that for some people ‘the difference between dying soon and dying sooner has no meaning.’ On that level, Sunshine, complete with several songs by John Denver, is unusual and unusually successful television.” 

Based on the strong response to the film and such Denver soundtrack tunes as Sunshine on My Shoulders, Goodbye Again, My Sweet Lady and Take Me Home, Country Roads, producing studio Universal released it as a theatrical feature in other territories. In his native New Zealand, future Twilight Time co-founder Brian Jamieson caught up with the film in the 1970s and it stayed with him across 45 years. The result is the dawn of Sunshine’s first home video release – of a clean and beautiful new 4K scan of the original Technicolor elements – now available as a Redwind Productions hi-def Blu-ray. It is harder-edged than you might expect and its central couple is as full of fundamental flaws and psychological scars as it is of goofball attractiveness. Now Sunshine, co-starring enduring favorites Bill Mumy, Corey Fischer (both of whom also went on to appear in the one-season TV series spinoff two years later with DeYoung and Foster) and James Hong, can attract new converts, like guru Glenn Erickson, whose appraisal can be found here: