Before TV movies were dissed with the phrase ‘disease of the month,’ this 1973 film surprised and moved audiences with the realistic story of a young mother facing a fatal illness. It’s directed by the great Joseph Sargent and graced with the music of John Denver, but its impact rests upon the remarkable, affecting performance of actress Cristina Raines, then just twenty years old.
1973 / Color / 1:33 flat / 124 min. / Street Date 2018 / Signature Release / 33.95
Starring: Cristina Raines, Cliff De Young, Meg Foster, Brenda Vaccaro, Bill Mumy, Alan Fudge, Corey Fischer, James Hong, Bill Stout, Noble Willingham.
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Film Editor: Buddy Small, Richard M. Sprague
Original Music: Hal Mooney
Songs by John Denver
Written by Carol Sobieski suggested by the journal of Jacquelyn Helton
Produced by George Ekstein
Directed by Joseph Sargent
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” That’s the first line of dialogue from 1970’s Love Story, a tearjerker sob opera that set sentimental love stories back at least twenty years. Yet it was the must-see movie of its season, and did so well that it became the first movie to be classed as a ’70s blockbuster ‘event’ picture.
‘Uplifting’ stories about young women dying have always been in fashion. Hollywood didn’t invent the tragic stage death, but it made poetically beautiful tearjerkers out of the tailspin demises of classy actresses like Greta Garbo (Camille) and Bette Davis (Dark Victory). Garbo did darken her eye sockets, but the filmic norm even for cases of Bubonic Plague was for a female star to swoon attractively and expire while reciting poetry, or while heroically insisting that her babbling boyfriend pretend that EGBOK. Watching somebody you care for die in a sickroom is a much different experience — nobody on the way out looks like they just had a visit by Max Factor.
The TV movie had won critical respectability a couple of years before with Universal’s Duel, the breakout success from Richard Matheson and Steven Spielberg. Two years later its producer George Eckstein came up with another winner that at first blush sounds like a gloss on Love Story: instead of a New England preppie taking the Long Goodbye, the main character is a twenty-year-old free soul who loves her baby (from an estranged husband), her flaky musician boyfriend, and the high mountain country, where we can all, like, be free.
That description does the overachieving TV movie Sunshine no favors — it’s an excellent piece of work by all concerned. Writer Carol Sobiesky’s writing avoids facile sentimentality, and the superb director Joseph Sargent (Colossus, The Forbin Project, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) tells the story in a no-nonsense, almost gritty style. Above all, the film showcases the effective debut of actress Cristina Raines, who positively glows in the leading role.
Adding more credibility is the fact that Sunshine is a true story. It’s based on an audio diary left by Jacquelyn Helton, a woman who died in 1971. Ms. Helton made the recordings as a gift to her baby daughter, to listen to as she grew. Her birth mother would be gone, but something of her could remain in the girl’s life.
The story begins at the ending, and then flashes back about three years. The independent-minded Kate (Raines) left home at an early age because she felt stifled and unloved. She married David (Alan Fudge) but rebelled against the confines of that relationship as well. Now she’s living in near- poverty with Sam Hayden (Cliff De Young), an unemployed musician trying to get a career going with two friends, the troublesome Weaver (Bill Mumy) and the mellow Givitz (Corey Fischer). Sam seems flaky at times but Kate adores his playful approach to life issues. Sam’s moments of irresponsibility are forgotten when he accepts Kate’s new baby (from David) as his own. But little Jill is only a few months old when Kate’s knee troubles are diagnosed by Dr. Carol Gillman (Brenda Vaccaro) as as virulent, malignant cancer. The response by Kate and Sam is anything but ‘doctor recommended’: Kate refuses an amputation that might save her and opts for an iffy regimen of radiation and drugs. On the basis of staying coherent enough to take care of Jill, Kate rejects the drugs as well. Doctor Gillman recognizes something new in Kate’s insistence on a dignified ‘Quality of Life’ exit.
Sunshine’s commercial frills in no way compromise its drama, even though a couple of popular songs by John Denver are worked into the storyline. Take Me Home, Country Roads expresses Kate’s love of the mountains — whenever things become bad, she asks to go back to an isolated mountain cabin. Denver’s song Sunshine On My Shoulders was written in 1971, but its appropriation for Kate’s theme and the show’s title doesn’t seem a cheat. Denver was apparently moved by the film, and reportedly referred to it in the lyrics of a subsequent song. In the movie the songs are meant to be Sam’s — actor Cliff De Young was previously a rock musician and singer, and performs them quite well. A scene where Sam dedicates a song to an ailing Kate, who must be carried into a club to hear it, is as moving as anything seen since … well, since Danny Kaye in the 1959 film The Five Pennies.
Sunshine wins us over through its commitment to the messy reality of real medical ‘losing battles,’ where people make wrong decisions, or the right decisions too late. Kate and Sam have barely established themselves as a couple, and the sickness turns neither of them into an unselfish saint. Kate becomes unreasonable about what she can accomplish. Sam is angry that Kate won’t fight against the cancer — the drugs make her wish she were dead already. They’re not destitute, but they’ve been living on family handouts while Sam tries to get his career going. They also get help from a neighbor, fellow free spirit Nora (Meg Foster).
Some of the film’s story developments must have surprised audiences of 1973. Breaking with the conventions of ‘uplifting’ family dramas, illness doesn’t bring on scenes of redemption or inspiration. Kate’s mother, never seen, continues to reject her. Kate’s legal husband arrives to fight for the marriage and custody of the child, and vanishes like smoke when he learns of Kate’s health dilemma. When Kate’s knee gives out, she stumbles and drops the baby, a definite no-no for depictions of ‘responsible mothers’ in mainstream films. Sam’s musician pal Weaver is an unsupportive, selfish clod who jokes about Kate’s condition, and becomes angry when Sam won’t spend all of his time rehearsing. He doesn’t go soft and redeem himself, either. As time grows short, Kate and Sam’s relationship shows the strain — Sam just isn’t prepared to stick to the finish. Kate must make her way mostly on her own, despite the loving attention of Dr. Gillman. The authentic, solitary conclusion is more in line with what’s seen in the unblinking documentary Dying at Grace.
The film’s mature attitude comes out when Kate and Sam try to figure out what will happen with Jill when Kate is gone. Dr. Gillman considers adopting. Kate is delighted that Sam is going to keep Jill, but who will help him raise her? The obvious candidate is Nora, who lives downstairs and is already on the verge of having an affair with Sam. It’s a touchy situation, as Kate easily intuits that something is going on between her husband and her part-time caregiver and babysitter. But it’s also obvious that Nora loves Kate too.
[Sidebar: Hollywood’s previous best shot at this sticky situation is the 1950 soap melodrama No Sad Songs for Me, in which a dying wife and mother (Margaret Sullavan), rather than divulge her condition to her husband (Wendell Corey), covertly encourages him to form a relationship with a woman he’s met at work (Viveca Lindfors). It’s tasteful yet grotesque: the movie endorses the notion that death is something never to be discussed in the open. The dying wife indulges an ‘unselfish’ power trip arranging for her own replacement. The story presumes that she has the right to keep everyone in the dark, and treat them like puppets. Recommended!]
Everyone shines under Joseph Sargent’s thoughtful direction. Cliff De Young’s Sam shows character and thought beneath a lot of flaky behaviors, although we find it difficult to forgive his bailing on Kate whenever things get too tough. Brenda Vaccaro is very good as the smart doctor who keeps Kate sane and productive by providing the tape recorder to record her thoughts. Vaccaro received precious few decent roles, and is unfairly remembered for hopeless parts in shows like Supergirl. Meg Foster is also impressive, going far beyond the initial impact of her arrestingly beautiful eyes. Again, it’s a sensitive performance clearly guided by director Sargent. It’s the same for too many capable actresses — looking up Ms. Foster in the IMDB, we learn that her best-known show is the dreadful Masters of the Universe.
But the movie belongs to Cristina Raines, who more or less sprang from nowhere with advanced performing skills, especially for a model in the late 1960s — early ’70s. Ms Raines communicates intelligence even as she shows Kate to be reckless and obstinate. Raines shows qualities we expect only from the most talented actresses — she’s willing to make Kate seem completely wrong-headed, even as she flashes her sincere toothy smile. Unguarded about her feelings, Kate expresses a love for life without imitating a greeting card.
Kate is also never called on to hit us with a fake ‘valiant’ act. She’s accustomed to bad news, and handles disappointments from her loved ones much better than she does her declining health. She’ll curse Sam one minute, laugh him off as a ‘walking away’ kind of guy, and then gravitate to him when he defends her against the abusive Weaver. It’s likely Ms. Raines’ best role — how does an actress prevail when stuck in a movie like The Sentinel?
I already mentioned the affecting singing scene in the club. The scene that really sells viewers on Sunshine comes earlier, when Sam sets up an almost-impromptu marriage ceremony in Kate’s hospital room. It’s wonderful, thanks to a terrific performance by Corey Fischer, whose Givitz conducts a Jewish ceremony, because it’s the one he knows. I’m not even sure that either Sam or Kate is Jewish, as everything Givitz asks them to do is delightfully unfamiliar. The point is that the ceremony is moving and meaningful, exactly the joyful moment the couple is after. Death is chased far, far away.
The Redwind Productions Signature Release Blu-ray of Sunshine is a wonderful surprise. Fans often lament a list of ‘classic’ TV movies from the 1970s that were not often repeated or revived; it’s feared that the majority of movies produced for TV haven’t been properly maintained. The fully restored Tobe Hooper miniseries Salem’s Lot is an exception. More typical are the less impressive DVD encodings of two big titles Helter Skelter and The Deadly Tower.
Sunshine looks and sounds great, far better than it ever could have on TV in 1973. Bill Butler’s cinematography gives the interiors of cramped apartments a ‘movie’ feel. The expansive exteriors in British Columbia are filmed for dramatic appeal, not to show off the scenery. Promotional photo sets for older TV movies are apparently scarce — unlike most of the images seen here, the show is in very attractive color.
The movie seems to have been shown theatrically, at least overseas. A poster does exist from a company called Cinema International Corporation. A followup TV movie was produced (described as a comedy), as well as a short-lived TV show. They used some of the same actors.
The disc has a trailer for an extra. The John Denver- written songs sound fine, and are given chapter stops in a menu. The insert notes include Denver’s positive quote about the movie. The songs are integrated well into the movie proper — we never feel that they’re being exploited for crossover interest value.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Original trailer, Jacqueline Taite liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 5, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson