By the end of the 1930s, 80 million Americans were making a weekly jaunt to the movies, settling down in darkness to trade their world for a larger one on the screen. Movie stars became famous the way no one had been before, their faces and gestures imprinted on an entire nation. Mention Woodrow Wilson and most people, if they reacted at all, pictured a stiff man in a high collar and thought of war and peace and the League of Nations. Say Cary Grant and he was real. They could close their eyes and see the teasing eyes, the famous cleft chin, hear him speak in that familiar voice that mocked even as it caressed.

Cary Grant was only one of the early screen idols, but unlike the others, he did not retire in middle age or fade into character parts. He was always the leading man, and if the lovers he courted grew progressively younger, the conquest was never implausible to the women watching.

Cary Grant's talent was to make it look easy, and his deft comic presence charmed succeeding generations. "You say people like me," he once said to an interviewer, "but I like them. We stretch out to each other."

As a child in Bristol, he watched his parents' marriage fail and his mother disappear, only to learn years later that she had been committed to a mental home. But unlike many actors, he has never appeared to be playing out the griefs of childhood. As a youth he was a Boy Scout, and the virtues of the oath seem to have taken hold. Serious and considerate in the practice of his profession, kind to old people, always speaking well of his four ex-wives, taking the blame for his blasted marriages, thrifty, sober, a decent man and a curse to a biographer.

Unable to find anything new to say about the man, Lionel Godfrey has concentrated on his films, making the book a boon to cinemaphiles if to no one else. At one point Godfrey quotes actress Deborah Kerr as saying of Grant: "His private life was, and is, his private life." Nor has this book changed that.

It has occasionally been said of Grant that he did not make full use of his talents, a charge not likely to be leveled at Sir Laurence Olivier, whom critic Kenneth Tynan once called "the greatest actor alive." From his darkly romantic Heathcliff, to his classic film, "Henry V," which he both directed and starred in, to his performance as the aging Archie Rice in "The Entertainer," Olivier has been true to a talent that emerged so early that when he was 11 actress Ellen Terry, seeing him in a school play, wrote, "The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor."

Not that Olivier made a smooth passage from his 11-year-old self to the 74-year-old legend who, upon being asked what he intended to do with the rest of his life, replied, "I am now in my anecdotage." Bad roles, bad plays, difficulty in making the transition from stage to screen acting and his tumultous 20-year marriage to actress Vivien Leigh led him to say 1967, "I sometimes have thought that my life was as cursed as some of the characters I played, for after every success I've had, something has come along to muck things up."

Often the something was Vivien Leigh, whose mental blackouts and rages made their life together one of increasing turmoil. Leigh decided she was in love with Olivier after seeing him on stage and pursued him with a successful singlemindedness. When Olivier's wife, Jill Esmond, visited Leigh, asking that she give up the affair, "Jill was astonished by Vivien's directness, particularly when Vivien started asking her intimate questions about Larry. I mean, questions like how did he like his eggs cooked, how did he like his shirts ironed -- that sort of thing. Jill felt as though Vivien was some kind of housemaid who was taking over from her. She was fascinated by Vivien's gall."

Although it is impossible to write about Olivier without writing about his wife's alcoholism and their mutual infidelities, Kiernan is more fascinated by the actor than the man and writes fully and well about the development of Olivier into one of the best actor's of our age.

Unlike Cary Grant, who chose to do one thing brilliantly, and Laurence Olivier, who constantly expanded his skills, Richard Burton is a man who settled for fame as Elizabeth Taylor's husband.

As biography, "Richard Burton" is the best of these books, examining the life and character of an actor of whom Kenneth Tynan wrote, "a shrewd Welsh boy shines out with greatness." The shinings became few and far between as Burton's career lengthened. Perhaps he was afraid to commit himself as an actor or perhaps he decided that money was a more useful commodity than greatness.

With Elizabeth Taylor, he lived the way kings would live if they didn't have to account to commoners. They traveled in luxury, surrounded by an entourage it once took two floors in a London hotel to accommodate. Wherever they went, there was a riot of publicity until, finally, the public tired of them. "They were becoming old-fashioned, like a dance band playing on among the pop groups."

The job of Burton's biographer is made more difficult by the actor's skill as a raconteur. Unlike Olivier, Burton entered his anecdotage at an early age, charming people with tales of growing up poor in a Welsh mining village. "We are a strange people, and we gave the world the verb 'to welch,' " he once remarked. It is to Paul Ferris' credit that he has been able to sort out truth from anecdote without depriving the reader of the stories of a man who, while he may have welched on his acting talent, never betrayed his gift for a good yarn.