Hollywood's reigning royalty -- the focus of new biographies; Sir Larry: The Life of Laurence Olivier, by Thomas Kiernan. New York: Times Books. 302 pp. $16.95. Cary Grant, The Light Touch, by Lionel Godfrey. New York: St. Martin's Press. 256 pp. $10.95. Richard Burton, by Paul Ferris. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan Inc. 328 pp. $13.95. Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, by Kitty Kelley. New York: Simon & Schuster. 448 pp. $14.95. Elvis, by Albert Goldman. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 598 pp. $14.95. Fonda: My Life As Told to Howard Teichmann. New York: New American Library. 372pp. $15.95. Bette: The Life of Bette Davis, by Charles Higham. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 316 pp. $13.95.
It never rains, it pours; so goes the old saw. In recent months, publishers have unleashed a deluge of entertainers' biographies. The hapless reader who sets sail through this storm of paper and ink is doused by more details than one person can absorb. Memory abandons ship after a futile attempt to keep straight the complexities of movie chronologies, musical careers, and multiple marriages.Skip to next paragraph
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But generalities float into reach, and one climbs aboard them to dry out - to wring from the soaking some picture that is larger than the sum total of details.
The broadest and most attractive generality is the idea of the popular performer as royalty. Cary Grant's biographer, Lionel Godfrey, goes so far as to call movie stars the ''true royalty of the twentieth century.''
Albert Goldman, a journalist, successfully pursues this idea to an extreme in his brutal expose of Elvis Presley. He notes that Americans, in particular, seemingly need ''to set up kings and worship them.'' He says these ''kings'' include elected officials (didn't people believe in John F. Kennedy's ''Camelot''?) as well as rock idols, movie stars, and other popular celebrities.
Unlike ''Elvis,'' which wallows in regal allusions, or ''Elizabeth Taylor, The Last Star,'' which - like Goldman's book - lavishes detail on its subject's royal hauteur and spoiled excesses, the other books listed above don't rely heavily on the idea of the star as potentate, but almost all allude to it.
For example, Paul Ferris contrasts Richard Burton's sooty, hardscrabble childhood as the son of a Welsh coal miner to his kingly demeanor as he approached adulthood. Ferris describes him as cutting a commanding figure when costumed for the part of a prince, king, or conqueror.
Howard Teichmann, on the other hand, implies that image of the star as royalty by going to great pains to portray Henry Fonda as the hardworking common man who loves to garden and changes his baby son's diapers aboard an airplane. Fonda, he says, ''never thinks of himself as a star.'' Here we have the head of one of Hollywood's crown families who looks more like the man-next-door than a monarch.
Similarly, Charles Higham, remembering a long-ago interview with Bette Davis, appreciatively notes that, ''unlike most stars, Bette Davis doesn't lurk at the top of a regal staircase, to descend only when the guest has been kept waiting long enough.''
Finally, curiosity about our royalty - whether or not we take them seriously - reasonably explains why sales of all these books are expected to go well.
Generalizations aside, the books vary considerably in depth and polish. Here are seven short profiles.
There is ''something in a name,'' Sir Ralph Richardson says in the opening chapter of this eloquent but flawed biography. ''Had Larry grown up to be Laurence Oliver, he'd never have grown up to be the actor he was. An actor , perhaps, but hardly one with his dash and sweep. 'Oliver' sort of stumbles off the tongue, whereas 'Olivier' flows and soars.''
Kiernan captures the ''dash and sweep'' of the renowned Shakespearean actor's troubled, tempestuous life. Olivier charmed American movie audiences 43 years ago with his portrayal of the hot-blooded stablehand, Heathcliff, in ''Wuthering Heights.'' It was one of his few successes on screen.
In real life, Olivier was equally passionate, says Kiernan, who recounts the actor's extramarital affair with actress Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's ''Gone With the Wind''), whose mental illness led their subsequent marriage to tragedy.
Kiernan's liberal use of quotations from Olivier's friends and colleagues enlivens his book. But many are left anonymous, which is an irritation to the reader.
Even more irritating, since this is one of the best books of the lot, is the way the author's writing stumbles toward the end. Most awkward, for example, is Kiernan's failure to comment on Olivier's reaction to Leigh's early death.
It is appropriate that Lionel Godfrey dedicates his book to all the endearing characters Grant immortalized on film, because the actor, who appeared so natural on film, breathed life into even the flimsiest role. It would be delightful to encounter in real life a man as debonair, witty, and kind as C. K. Dexter Haven -- the reformed ne'er-do-well Grant portrayed in ''The Philadelphia Story.''
Although he attempted straight drama many times, Grant's bailiwick was light comedy. Ironically, he achieved the comedic fame for which his countryman, Olivier, at first yearned.