THE NEW REVIVAL series at the Biograph, "Great Ladies of the Silver Screen," which began this weekend with the Greta Garbo classics "Camille" and "Ninotchka" as the first of 30 alluring double-bills, promises to be a sustained delight. Given recent trends in the movie business, this reminder of the variety of feminine talent, temperament, personality, physiognomy and individuality that once flourished in Hollywood may also come as a revelation and an inspiration.

Over the past decade leading roles for movie actresses have diminished to such an extent that women stars have come to be regarded as an endangered species. Growing up in this unprecedented, aberrant period of American commercal filmmaking, when the appearance of a name like Barbra Streisand or Tatum O'Neal in the annual lists of box-office favorites can seem almost exotic, younger moviegoers may find it difficult to believe that no so long ago the same lists were often dominated by actresses.

For example, Box Office magazine published the results of an intensive popularity survey at the end of 1956. In descending order the top 10 film stars were Kim Novak, William Holden, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, Susan Hayward, Deborah Kerr, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.

The decline began imperceptibly in the late '60s. It can be dated from Audrey Hepburn's decision to retire after "Wait Until Dark" in 1967, a perfectly justifiable personal preference that turned out to have unfortunate implications for the business. Our classiest leading lady disappeared from the screen when her presence and example might have helped to stabilize values in a topsy-turvy period.On the other hand she might have been undermined by miscalculations similar to those that reduced Shirley MacLaine, Julie Andrews, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith, among others, to premature back numbers and stymied Mia Farrow and Mary Tyler Moore before they'd scarcely begun.

It's conceivable that the decline has already bottomed out. The first half of 1977 brought appealing or diverting performances from Melinda Dillion and Gail Strickland in "Bound For Glory" (which could have used much more of them). Lily Tomlin in "The Late Show," Sandy Dennis and Glenda Jackson in "Nasty Habits," Sissy Spacek (the acting sensation of last year in "Carrie") and Shelley Duvall in "3 Women," Lindsay Crouse (reminiscent of the young Shirley MacLaine) and Jill Eikenberry in "Between the Lines" (an agent who controlled the bright young performers in this picture and "Carrie" could get a terrific jump on the '80s), Marie-France Pisier in the later stages of "The Other Side of Midnight" and Sally Field in "Smokey and the Bandit."

Although I don't care for the way he's gone about it, Woody Allen evidently enhanced Diane Keaton's popular luster in "Annie Hall." The fact that Allen only has eyes for Keaton is bad news for the other young actresses in the cast, like Duvall and Carol Kane, who get used rather shabbily, but the film seems to have broadened the base of Keaton's appeal in a peculiarly sentimental way. She makes people nostalgic about their first nervous breakdowns and romantic breakups.

Actresses have the leading roles in three of the major releases of the second half of 1977 - Kathleen Quinlan and Bibi Anderson in "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden," Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in "Julia" and Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in "The Turning Point." Keaton returns as a self-destructive neurotic in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," which may also be a comeback vehicle for Tuesday Weld.

A fizzle earlier this year as the female terrorist in "Black Sunday," Marthe Keiler will try to induce pathos as Al Pacino's ill-fated girlfriend in "Bobby Deerfield." Marsha Mason, also off on the wrong foot this year with "Audrey Rose," gets a second chance in "The Goodbye Girl," a romantic comedy about theater people written by husband Neil Simon and co-starring Richard Dreyfuss. Jill Clayburgh gets to choose between Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson in it alone in Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman."

The Woman's Liberation agitation must have caused little but confusion and anxiety in the minds of contemporary film producers and executives, who rarely seem as sure of moviegoing tastes as the first-generation buccaneers who built Hollywood. If a typically "aware" producer of the early '70s had tried to exploit the subject, chances are that sexual antagonisms would have been clarifed in the same way that collegiate unrest was clarified in such lamentable period pieces as "Getting Straight," "The Strawberry Statement," and "Drive, He Said." Baffled anew by that venerable puzzler, "What do Women Want?," film executivies may have reached the only commercially viable conclusion by deciding that women must want Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Jack Nicholson too.

If the public had been primed for even modest breakthroughs, pictures like "Made for Each Other," "Blume in Love" and "Up the Sandbox" would have made more than "A Touch of Class" or "For Pete's Sake." The box-office returns from Streisand's "A Star is Born" and Frank Yablans' "The Other Side of Midnight" are encouraging the hope that the Woman's Picture may be returning in all its vain, hypocritical glory.

There was considerable press consternation about the fact that an actress as up-to-date as Marie-France Pisier had lent herself to material as trashy as "The Other Side of Midnight." One got the impression she was betraying her sex by making a calculated career decision that will probably turn out to be pretty shrewd.

Compared to the truly inspired, flamboyant kitsch monuments of the past, like King Vidor's productions of David O. Seiznick's "Duel in the Sun" and Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," which share a mind-boggling double-bill in the Biograph series, "The Other Side of Midnight" is cinematic kid stuff. Even the fairly explicit eroticism looks genteel compared to the smoldering, overwhelming undercurrents pantomimed a generation ago by Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck and Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper.

At the moment the prospects look brighter for movie actresses, even though the brightest star to emerge from the late '60s, Streisand, has become an imposing question mark. What can she do after a self-inflicted ego-massage like "A Star Is Born"? Remake "Lady in the Dark"?

There's no denying that the current attractions pale into insignificance set against the titles assembled for the Biograph retrospective. It will be a long uphill battle before the ambitious, talented and necessarily self-starting actresses of the present can hope to sustain careers comparable to the ones created within the old Hollywood studio system, which had a vested interest in developing talent.

The series is delightful, but after perusing the program some moviegoers may be tempted to complain, Where's Margret Sullavan or Greer Garson or Ava Gardner or Eleanor Parker or Betty Hutton? The answer is that the selections had to stop somewhere, and there are bound to be some arbitrary omissions and inclusions. But more than 40 starts are represented, many in their most celebrated, characteristic or simply notorious vehicles.

Joel Siegel, who collaborated on the programming and wrote the program notes, has attempted a number of ingenious combinations. There are two sister-act double-bills: Joan Bennett turns up in "Little Women," paired with Constance Bennett in "What Price Hollywood," the 1932 David O. Selznick-George Cukor prototype for "A Star is Born," while Joan Fontaine in "Suspicion" doubles with Olivia De Havilland in "The Heiress," both of which won Oscars for the sisters.

There are two dynastic succession double-bills. The most effective pairs Rita Hayworth in "Gilda" with Kim Novak, whom Columbia's Harry Cohn groomed as Hayworth's replacement, in "Bell, Book and Candle," a pleasant reminder of how the movies used to exploit the occult. The combination of Alice Faye in "The Gang's All Here," actually a better showcase for Carmen Miranda, and Betty Grable in "My Blue Heaven," a late Grable musical that did more for Mitzi Gaynor, invites some quibbling, and the programmers aren't exactly happy with it either. The next time around "On the Avenue" and "Down Argentine Way" might be more like it.

One Siegel hunch should pay off brilliantly: the combination of Marion Davies in King Vidor's charming silent comedy about the film business, "Show People," with Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard." Davies' abilities were virtually forgotten after people began confusing her with the Susan Alexander character in "Citizen Kane." This revival reveals her as a lovely comedienne, and the fun is enhanced by the fact that she does hilarious impressions of Swanson in a characterization spoofing Swanson's silent screen career.

This bill is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, and it would probably be wisest to see "Sunset Boulevard" first, especially if you've never seen Swanson.

One might go on for days listing the important roles that one actress got because another lost or rejected them. The most famous case is probably "All About Eve," which was first offered to Getrude Lawrence and then awarded to Claudette Colbert, who broke her back and saw Bette Davis step into a smashing comeback performance. Illness knocked Jean Arthur out of "Born Yesterday" on the road, and she was succeeded by an understudy named Judy Holliday. Marilyn Monroe rejected the role of Holly Golightly, allowing Audrey Hepburn a bowdlerized but still radiant triumph in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Hedy Lamarr ("I think I am a cross between Greta Garbo and Judy Garland," she wrote in "Ecstasy and Me") turned down "Casablanca," "Gaslight" and "Laura."

The vital statistics on the series include eight Oscar-winning performances by actresses, two by actors and two by supporting performers, plus four Oscar-winning films. George Cukor is the best-respresented director with seven titles, a fitting tribute to his reputation as Hollywood's premiere "woman's director." There are four films directed by Billy Wilder and three by Howard Hawks, William Wyler and King Vidor (part of a fourth if one counts the black and white sequences of "The Wizard of Oz," which Vidor directed after Victor Fleming went off the replace Cukor on "Gone With the Wind.")

Gary Grant appears as the leading man in nine films, trailed by James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in four and Clark Gable and William Powell in three. Best of all, there are some of the most stylish and satisfying entertainments ever manufactured in Hollywood, including such seldom revived gems as "The Lady Eve," "Roxie Hart" (recently transformed by Bob Fosse into the musical "Chicago") and "My Man Godfrey." There's every reason to expect "Great Ladies" to be a great revival series.