The Golden Age of TV Movies: Sunshine (1973)

Welcome to The Golden Age of TV Movies, a monthly column dedicated to those great TV films of yesteryear.

Love Story, the Oscar nominated mega-hit from 1970, is a film I've loved to hate. Love Story's theme, that it's somehow “romantic” to die of cancer at a young age, has always struck me as being rather offensive. I wasn't too happy, a few years after Love Story, to be told by my high school English teacher that we were to watch Sunshine, a TV movie about a young mom….who was dying of cancer. 

as it turns out, was a docudrama. It was based on the real life story of Jacquelyn Helton (1951-1971). Helton was a peace-loving hippie, a young wife and a mother who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a hard-to-treat form of bone cancer, soon after giving birth to her daughter.

Helton faced her fate bravely, determined to spend as much time with her little girl as she could. She died at age 20, leaving behind a series of journals and tape recordings in which she expressed her thoughts and spoke to the daughter she knew might not remember her. Sunshine was based upon Helton's diaries. 

Unlike Love Story, Sunshine doesn't shy away from the realities of living with and dying of cancer. The earlier film never showed the suffering that the illness causes. Star Ali MacGraw, a former cover girl, went to her grave looking as though she were posing for Vogue. In Sunshine, star Cristina Raines (playing the Helton inspired Kate) is seen sweating and gasping for breath as the disease progresses. Kate struggles to get to know Jill, her young daughter, even as the pressures of her illness takes its toll on her marriage to Sam (Cliff DeYoung).

Through it all Kate lives her life as best she can. She never takes her eyes off the prize, her determination to leave behind a legacy for Jill so that the adult Jill can know who her mom was.

A profoundly sad tearjerker, Sunshine ultimately becomes a gloriously unforgettable celebration of life. This may “just”  be a TV movie, but it's a classic film nonetheless.

Sunshine may have played a role in catapulting the career of country/folk rocker John Denver. Denver (1943-1997) began his career during the 1960s and had already achieved a measure of success and popularity when the film was first shown. He provides the film's iconic soundtrack. Hits like Take Me Home Country Roads, Sunshine on My Shoulders and others give Sunshine an extra emotional depth. 

Sunshine may be the first TV movie to make people weep. It remains a powerful viewing experience. The complete film is available for viewing at YouTube in 10-minute segments.         


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