By Marc Eliot. Harmony. 435 pp. $25.95

Of all the stars in the Hollywood heaven, the one we'd most like to keep there is Cary Grant. If we must have a new and comparatively unvarnished biography of the man -- and I, for one, would happily have gone to my grave with my fantasies intact -- then Marc Eliot proves himself to be the biographer for the job. Dismantling sacred images is a task fraught with peril, especially when it involves a subject as slippery as Grant. He was one of the cinematic greats but not in ways usually associated with the term -- as important for his physical elegance as for his dexterity in shifting registers. Few could move, as he did, between comedy and romance, even to moody withdrawal. But what we lose in the demystification of the myth, we gain in understanding the hard work that went into its creation, and the greater the obstacles -- enormous in Grant's case -- the greater our awe at the accomplishment. Earning our trust with his neutral, unsensational tone, the author fills in the blanks, without lingering over less flattering details in a lipsmacking manner. If Eliot's is not a book of startling critical insights, his more than adequate prose offers something just as valuable: the evidence by which a case can be made for Grant's stature, not just as myth or icon, but as an artist as well. Keeping the actor's astonishing career firmly in view, Eliot assembles a portrait that shows the dark shadows behind the gleaming facade, while also revealing Grant's own shrewdness in maintaining that fictional persona.

For Grant truly was, as one critic dubbed him, Cary Dorian Grant, his longevity unprecedented in a youth-obsessed medium. A favorite leading man for more than three decades, he partnered with an ever-younger supply of female co-stars, and his later films, when he was in his fifties, were even more successful at the box office than his early ones. In the 1930s, working under directors like Leo McCarey, George Cukor and Howard Hawks, he helped invent screwball comedy, wooing his leading ladies -- with the accent on ladies -- into the goofy lunacy of that airborne genre. In the 1940s, in films like "Suspicion," "Notorious" and "To Catch a Thief," Hitchcock uncovered Grant's darker, satanic side, shades of noir that accentuated the latent ferocity that was part of his magnetism. He was a man who wore a tuxedo like no one on Earth, suggesting, beneath the patrician confidence, the acrobat who might spring into a somersault and turn the stiffest of evenings into private hilarity without disarranging a hair on his shiny black head.

So how did a poor Bristol boy named Archie Leach who had come to America with a troupe of knockabout comedians acquire the spit and polish and know-how of a toff? For one thing, by working to make ends meet as a male escort, squiring rich ladies to black-tie charities and observing the ways of the rich. That was an item he was far more anxious to keep under wraps than his homosexual liaisons, but like such illustrious predecessors as Valentino and Gable, he seems to have learned useful lessons in this not-quite-savory trade. "Socializing with the tuxedo set," writes Eliot, "allowed Archie to observe, up close, the physical mannerisms of the wealthy and helped him iron out any of the lingering cultural wrinkles from his working-class upbringing. He listened carefully to the way people spoke and worked incessantly on modulating his natural British sing-song lilt into a more descending American rhythm. He practiced his walk to eliminate his street roll, the result of his naturally bowed, acrobatic 'rubber legs.' . . . All of this physical fine-tuning resulted in his becoming even more attractive to the women who hired him."

About the rumors of his homosexuality that regularly appeared in the gossip columns, Grant grew fairly impervious. Although he did sue a snickering Chevy Chase for calling him a "homo" and a "gal" on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" show in 1980, at another point late in his career, he ruefully welcomed the rumors as signs that he was important again. Bisexual -- or perhaps "bi-romantic" would be a better description -- he had feverish crushes on women, especially his co-stars (Irene Dunne, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Sophia Loren), affairs with starlets, not to mention five marriages alongside a long-term house- and "soulmate" relationship with Randolph Scott. Their relationship, Eliot suggests, was less about sex than mutual narcissism and affection. "They resembled each other to a startling degree. . . . They liked the same things: drinking, smoking and expensive clothes. They also shared a wicked sense of humor."

One example was the in-joke of "My Favorite Wife" that had cognoscenti chuckling for years. Grant's wife (Dunne), presumed "lost" on a desert island, has now returned with Scott in tow. Have they been lovers? the movie coyly asks. In a climactic scene at the swimming pool, Grant, wearing a suit and meant to be in a stew of jealousy, wipes his perspiring face while a scantily-clad Scott, in superb desert island fitness, swims and dives to the admiration of all.

Eliot sees the preening and competitiveness as part of the attraction in a match that worked because "their physical needs and desires were not particularly overheated. Sex was almost like an afterthought, a natural extension of the buddy-buddy British-schoolboy-type friendship they shared in a world where the women they knew were for the most part cool and calculated personifications of professional ambition rather than heated objects of private pleasure."

In mid-life, Grant took up psychoanalysis and LSD (it was legal at the time), longed for a child and offered a million dollars (a rather big deal for this notorious skinflint) to the woman who would give him one. Tales of espionage for J. Edgar Hoover on wife number 3, Barbara Hutton, are not as unsettling as the news that he smacked Dyan Cannon a couple of times. His fourth wife, Cannon bore him a daughter, and in his possessiveness toward mother and child, he seems to have lost his famous reserve. A streak of old-fashioned authoritarianism surfaced, as he tried to make her give up her career. There were acrimonious partings and, in the custody hearings, a doctor (a witness for Grant) confirmed that he had " 'spanked' " his wife for " 'reasonable and adequate causes.' " The papers sensationally reported that "Grant Beat Wife." Such he-said-she-said stories, notoriously hard to adjudicate, are made more so in Grant's case as he had no chance to deny the allegation: there was no "he said." The actor maintained a gallant silence about each of his marriages and the women involved.

Fun-loving at times, Grant was also reclusive and moody. One of his best friends was Howard Hughes: He and the eccentric womanizer used to dine at Hughes's long, august table in companionable silence. Grant's inability to find refuge in love was understandable given the mysteries and absences of his background. His father, Elias, a tailor's presser with one eye for the ladies and another for the niceties of wardrobe, was unhappily married to the shy and repressed (and cleft-chinned) Elsie, who lost her adored first child before his first birthday -- an event her other son learned about only years later. When Archie was 10 years old, his mother simply vanished. He was told she had died of cancer, only to finally discover that his father had had her institutionalized so he could live with his mistress in Southampton without the expense of a divorce.

Grant's early moviemaking experiences convinced him he didn't want a life of bondage to the studio system, or of playing second fiddle to Gary Cooper at Paramount. Against everyone's advice, he walked away from a new contract and, with the help of a smart agent, Frank Vincent, took charge of his own career -- a defection for which Hollywood never forgave him. There were lawsuits and reprisals, including the denial of an Oscar until Gregory Peck in 1970 made sure he received an honorary one.

Not always the best judge of his own movies (his favorite was the somber Cockney fable "None but the Lonely Heart" because it reminded him of his background and his mother), he nevertheless had a firm and expanding grasp of his image. He found he could perform the daffiest stunts, don a feathery bathrobe and say "I've gone gay" (the famous gag in Hawks's "Bringing Up Baby" was his own idea), deliver the most cutting dialogue, without losing his dignity, credibility or appeal, but, Eliot tells us, he would never -- and surely this was among his most astute decisions -- doggedly pursue a woman onscreen. This edge of aloofness, like the hard-to-get game he also played with Hollywood, was perhaps the secret of his irresistible "easy come, easy go" magic.

Rarely have the background stories of the films been told in such detail, and the effect is to let us see with a clear but sympathetic eye how trial and error, blind spots and epiphanies, accidents and deliberate choices went into the fashioning of Cary Grant.

The one film he disliked -- ironically, the comedy that launched him as a romantic farceur -- was "The Awful Truth," because he hated McCarey's improvisational style. The story of a philandering husband and his wife, their divorce (with shared custody of the dog), their wickedly funny shenanigans with suitors and showgirls was just the jumping-off point for a love story that miraculously combined antic humor and urban sophistication. But in the beginning, Grant couldn't understand how any man would commit adultery if he had Irene Dunne for a wife. He actually tried three times to get out of the part of the philandering Jerry, going so far as to ask Ralph Bellamy to change roles so that he, Grant, could play the smitten suitor. Yet the angst may have arisen because the brilliant comedy also represented a sort of deflowering, the moment when he understood just how far Cary Grant was going to take him from the real Archie Leach, and when he faced the void between past and future that nothing could ever quite fill. If we resist confronting the warts-and-all backstory of Grant, maybe we can be forgiven: Even his mother, adoring but addled by the time he finally found her, ended by confusing Archie Leach with Cary Grant. *

Molly Haskell is a film critic and author, most recently, of "Holding My Own in No Man's Land."

With first wife, Virginia Cherrill, and Randolph Scott in 1934Grant with fifth wife, Barbara HarrisWith Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious"