SANTA MONICA, CALIF. -- Ali MacGraw came to the bleached-white cafe in bleached denim -- the palest blue -- head to toe. Her thin, tan fingers played with silver rings. Her nail polish was clear. She shifted the glasses around on the table linen. She stroked a straw, gently, for nearly two hours. Her voice was powdery and deep. She smelled like freesia. She was super nice, appreciative, nearly mealy. She wanted to be liked. She cared. She looked young -- yes -- and soft. She has a freshness, and a sadness, that no camera has captured. She leaned closer. She's 52. She pointed to her lip. She said there was a cold sore on it. It was indiscernible, but she swore it was there. She smiled -- a glorious traffic jam of huge white uncapped teeth -- and you could feel her thinking about it.

Her dog sat outside in the Southern California sunlight, tied to a parking meter and wearing a bandanna. Her new boyfriend -- his first name is Jeff -- sat waiting in a car. Her son, Josh Evans, turned up -- perhaps another member of her support group -- with his girlfriend, Natasha Wagner, the daughter of Natalie Wood and adopted daughter of Robert Wagner. They ate at another table. They wore old clothes and relaxed smiles.

"He's so wonderful," MacGraw said. "He's my favorite human being on the planet, and he goes out with a girl I'm nuts about. Their relationship is so much about, among other things, friendship and respect... ."

Friendship. Respect. Why didn't she get more of that? Over and over in her new book, "Moving Pictures," she shuffles her faults like tarot cards, searching for an explanation. What happened to her life? Why hasn't she been happy? She examines herself through a gigantic microscope: A wrinkle becomes a crevice. Two glasses of wine a night becomes a problem with alcohol. A few unhappy affairs become an addiction to men. She digs up her own dirt. She describes herself as looking and feeling "like garbage." She joins the legions of The Talking Wounded ...

Six years ago, she checked into the Betty Ford Clinic. She thought she was having a nervous breakdown, that was all. Outside, she looked good -- the byproduct of endless workouts and diets and yoga. Inside was a crazy mess, a tight ball of tangled doubts. Her father had been a heavy drinker. He sat around the house -- apparently both a genius and a failure -- writing notes to himself in a language he had made up. Her mother -- who earned the money, but not enough -- was quiet, critical. Was that the problem?

Was she an Adult Child of Something or Other?

She didn't want to believe in accidental stardom, but she always felt defective -- not smart enough, not pretty enough. She told the Betty Ford Center counselor that she wasn't a drinker. That she didn't drink all the time. That mostly she'd have a couple glasses of wine a night, but sometimes she'd get bombed alone, paint, and call strangers on the phone.

"Like me, most people have been brought up to think that an alcoholic is face down in the gutter with a raincoat," she said at the cafe. "The fact is, as we all know now -- anybody who's been in treatment -- that addiction to alcohol comes in a million different ways."

She stood up and said: My name is Ali, and I am an alcoholic and male-dependent. ...

She had been a romantic, dreamy girl. Her lifelong idol was Zelda Fitzgerald -- the Zelda who danced on tabletops at parties, not the Zelda who wound up covered with eczema sores in a sanitarium. She wanted to fall in love every week. She'd tried so many men. She married a Harvard boy, then a Hollywood producer, then a movie star. But there were surprises. They never turned out to be the guys she thought they were.

She had affairs. There was a succession of married guys -- a professor, an entertainment executive -- and then the harmonica player in Willie Nelson's band. She tried sex with a married couple ("I spent most of the time trying not to hurt the girl's feelings by being too attracted to her husband"). At Betty Ford, she wrote herself a letter: Dear Alice. ... I am ashamed of you. You have behaved insensitively toward the women whose husbands you have slept with.

She'd been on the broke side too. She'd left Robert Evans for Steve McQueen, taking only 2-year-old Josh with her. When she left McQueen five years later, she didn't ask for a dime. Three marriages in all, and still she didn't have a house of her own, even a stick of silver. Maybe there's some justice in this: She'd cheated on all of them.

After Betty Ford, she went a year without men. "It was fabulous," she said. "And it was the hardest thing in the beginning, and then it wasn't hard at all. ... I've done it a couple of times since then -- I've had mini-relationships and then gone for 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 months without any sex and any fantasy life about somebody, and it has been the single most important growing time for me as a woman."

Her face is on the cover of "Moving Pictures." It's on the back. It's on the spine! It's beautiful, clear and honest. A no-tricks beauty -- only an eye job eight years ago.

"And thank God," she said. "I should have had them done right after the second grade, because I had these huge eyebrows."

She looks terrific.

"Yeah," she said, "except on film there was no space between my eyebrows and my eyelids."

This isn't vanity, or narcissism. There's a black hole of fear where her ego should be. Those confidently quipped insults of hers in "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Love Story" -- Bar-rett as in Bar-rett Hall? -- the flared nostrils, the smug East Coast voice, the upturned nose, the disapproving mouth ... It was all an act. A bad one.

"This is who I am," she said in her pale blue denim. And she was pointing to her lip, to the cold sore that wasn't there.

Her Book as Confessional There was a long publicity tour, and then the rewards of that: "Moving Pictures" got up to fourth place on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks running. It sank to 14th, then rose again to 10th, then, this past Sunday, vanished.

People are buying the book, the same way they once -- God, it was so long ago! -- lined up to see her die in "Love Story" or fingered through fanzines to see pictures of her Malibu hippie life with Steve McQueen ... the dune buggies, the beach sweat, the love beads and wind-swept hair.

On "Larry King Live," her bangs kept stabbing her eyes. She seemed a victim even of her own hair. She kept blinking. She seemed tense and lined. The camera did not love her. She seemed aware of this possibility, but her voice was steady.

A caller asked, "Does going to the Betty Ford Center absolve you from being an ordinary drunk?"

"No," she said.

MacGraw didn't address the hostile subtext, the implied insult. The world has gotten a little tired -- hasn't it? -- of celebrity addicts and their books. "I didn't want to be on drugs," goes the bad joke by Roseanne Barr. "But my publicist said it would help my comeback." It's become almost a formula in publishing: X amount of name recognition plus Y amount of personal grief equals N amount of renewed fame and books sold. After all, Alcoholics Anonymous doubled its membership during the 1980s. An estimated 15 million Americans now attend a support group every week. And a fourth of those are 12 Step programs.

"I'm not looking for this as a way into the public eye," MacGraw said. "I am real clear that my worst self comes out when I'm loaded. I get to a place where I'm so egocentric that I'm always comparing myself to other people and I'm very judgmental, controlling, angry and sad. So who needs it? I don't feel like that now... ."

Patty Duke wrote "Call Me Anna." Gelsey Kirkland wrote "Dancing on My Grave." Carol Burnett wrote "One More Time." Betty Ford wrote "A Glad Awakening." Mariette Hartley wrote "Breaking the Silence." Suzanne Somers wrote "Keeping Secrets." Kitty Dukakis wrote "Now You Know." William Styron wrote "Darkness Visible." Lynn Redgrave has just finished "This Is Living." Eddie Fisher wrote "Eddie: My Life, My Loves." Gary Crosby wrote "Going My Way." Elizabeth Taylor wrote "Elizabeth Takes Off." Christina Crawford wrote "Mommie Dearest." Carrie Fisher wrote "Postcards From the Edge." Julia Phillips wrote "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again." And at 14, Drew Barrymore has already published "Little Girl Lost."

What's the fascination? Why do we want to read about Duke's manic depression or Redgrave's lifelong weight problem? Why, after mouthing cheers for their courage, do we start cracking jokes about them? Why is it slightly funny that Kitty Dukakis once resorted to drinking rubbing alcohol? Or that Ali MacGraw, her drinking problem -- never noticeable to her friends -- in the past, now makes her living appearing in Victoria Jackson cosmetics info-mercials that are broadcast in the middle of the night?

"I really loved it," Ali MacGraw said of writing her memoirs. "It's really cleansing ... sitting in that room in front of the fireplace with that pad on my lap and looking out the window and having a tea and then doing it deeper and deeper and deeper is really satisfying."

She wrote longhand. It starts with a description of the sky above her New Mexico house -- a swiftly changing canvas of huge clouds chasing one another across a field of brilliant blue. She veers to describe an outdoor luncheon in Rome, circa 1967, at a 5th-century villa rented by Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda. Nobody was being a Movie Star. To me they were like children, playing in the grass.

Reviews have not all been kind. The New York Times described the "inane but rapidly selling" book as reading "like an adolescent's diary." This is her specialty: Lots of Attention, Lousy Reviews.

The Accidental Star She never was a top model, as is widely believed. But the camera has found her -- flukishly -- throughout her life. When she was in college and a guest editor at Mademoiselle, the magazine decided to put her on the cover. She was so lovely! When she worked for Diana Vreeland at Harper's Bazaar in 1960, she was photographed crossing the street -- wearing a huge hair bow -- and she landed on the front of Women's Wear Daily. ("My God, did I want that ribbon to stop traffic. And it did.") When she was a stylist for fashion photographer Mervin Sokolsky in New York City, an ad exec suggested MacGraw be used in some Chanel print work. Then a movie executive -- who had seen the Chanel ad -- cast her as coed Brenda Patimkin in "Goodbye, Columbus" in 1969.

She was 31.

Would you mind holding my glasses? This was her first snotty line. She was wearing a bathing suit. She was leaning over Richard Benjamin at the country club pool. She looked like a very young Anne Bancroft. She played a Jewish princess at Radcliffe -- rich and over-educated and throwing it in everybody's face all the time.

She hit, and people were amazed by her. She seemed so smooth and strong. Like Katharine Ross, she was dark and serious. What were we looking for then? In interviews, she was refined and intelligent. She had gone to Rosemary Hall on scholarship! She had studied art history at Wellesley!

But it was the next year, and her next picture -- "Love Story" -- that brought MacGraw huge fame. Again, she played a Radcliffe girl. Again, she had that throw-it-in-your-face quality. Again, it worked for her. (It would be the last time.) She was nominated for an Academy Award. She was featured on the covers of Time and Look and Harper's Bazaar and Paris Match. Movie critic Joyce Haber called her "the biggest female star since Marilyn Monroe."

She married the movie's producer, Robert Evans, and moved into his palatial Hollywood digs. She shared his houseman, his cook, his maids, his swimming pool, his garden, his 32 telephones, his life. Soon they shared a son, Josh.

"She is today's closest approximation to the old-style star," said Time magazine, "with the Beverly Hills mansion, the burgeoning career, the marriage to the industry, and the chance to become very, very rich."

"I had it all," she said. "I had been in a blockbuster picture. I had style. I had an education. Taste. ... I'd had a real life -- 15 years working in the real world. I hadn't dreamed about being in the movies, and suddenly, I was the biggest thing walking. That is the American fairy tale."

Soon, though, the fairy tale began to wobble. We came to expect certain things from her. We wanted to be amazed all over again. We wanted a fresh performance to go with the fresh face. She couldn't deliver it. Perhaps it goes back to that cold sore. Perhaps it's this sort of thing that races through her mind while she's trying to act. There's a sad, terrified look, a jerky self-consciousness. She's had big breaks and good luck, she's got great looks, sensitivity, brains too. But ultimately, the time came. The one gift that God hadn't given her became apparent.

When "The Getaway" was released in 1972, critic Pauline Kael called her "the worst actress in America." In 1973, when MacGraw pressed her bare hands into the wet concrete outside Graumann's Chinese Theater, a group of protesters paraded by with placards: LET US GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE. ALI MacGRAW, WHO ARE YOU?

For five years, she didn't work. This was blamed on Steve McQueen, her husband during those years. He wanted her at home, it was said. When their marriage fell apart -- he cheated, she cheated -- she thought of acting again. It was her craft, after all. In 1977, she accepted -- at her agent's pleading -- a part in "Convoy" with Kris Kristofferson. When she came home to tell McQueen, he said: "In that case we are filing for divorce."

A long series of flops ensued. After "Convoy," there was "Players" with Dean-Paul Martin. In 1980 she did "Just Tell Me What You Want" with Alan King. Turning to television for work, she did "The Winds of War" in 1983 and was singled out by Time magazine as the only bad thing in it. ("Shocked and devastated," she wrote. "I put in a solid week of blackout drinking.")

The same year, she appeared in "Dynasty." Even her old friend Vogue magazine managed to print a nasty notice. MacGraw said soap opera acting was harder than it looked. When the season's last episode was shot, she didn't know that her character was being killed off until there was a blaze of gunfire. She was told to lie on the floor. Fake blood was squirted all over her.

"Should my eyes be open or closed for this scene?" she asked the associate producer.

"Closed, stupid," the producer responded. "You're dead."

Isn't there a tragedy in this? Isn't there some pity for a woman who stumbled, bumbled, haphazarded upon great fame and international renown -- she's so beautiful in person! -- for something she's not really good at? Who's to blame for her expanded hopes? Who's to blame for her long, dark, scary thunk to the ground?

Is she sorry she made "Love Story"?

"No, I'm not at all sorry," she said. "I think it was a blessing. But what I'm sorry about is that I wasn't prepared to do the quality work. And then, there's a luck factor. You know, not everything you do is great. Period. Or successful."

The New Leaf Ali MacGraw can't imagine staying in California much longer now. She stayed because of Josh. "I wanted my child to have his father and his mother available to him all the time," she said. But now Josh Evans is working -- he played the manager in "The Doors" -- and he's gotten his first apartment.

"I'm an Easterner," she said. "That's it."

She has a house of her own now, in New Mexico. And maybe she'll find another spot, in Maine or Vermont or somewhere quiet and beautiful. She might keep writing. "I like the process," she said.

When she gives up Los Angeles -- the way she gave up booze and men -- maybe she'll give up one of her other addictions too.

"I don't want to be hip anymore," she said. "Thank God! I always thought that was important. I'm in the slow-learner department. Some of us are slower than others. It's really a symptom of the disease called I'm-only-somebody- if-you're-looking-at-me."

When did this addiction begin?

"I remember way, way, way back being photographed when I was a stylist, like in 1962 ... and there was a girl with no name on the front page of Women's Wear because her ribbon was so amazing. And it was me."