Hollywood reporters have their place, but Aljean Harmetz is much more. She's a true essayist, with a sharp critical sense in addition to the know-how and connections that are basic to her trade. Though movies are her beat, her interest ranges way beyond the ''dream factory'' she observes and comments on.
''Rolling Breaks and Other Movie Business'' - that might almost have been ''monkey business'' - is a thinking person's tour of Tinseltown, spiced with wit and irony. Most of the articles appeared first in the New York Times, others in magazines. Though some were written more than a decade ago, epilogues update them when necessary. Personality profiles and ''trend pieces'' rub elbows with straight reportage, while more eccentric stories trace the serpentine path of a Hollywood rumor or the muddy career of a would-be producer.
Along the way, we meet everyone from Barbara Stanwyck and Billy Wilder to Jack Nicholson and George Lucas. We visit a sneak preview, rate the ratings, and learn how behind-the-scenes drug abuse affects the films we see. What makes the trip special is the clear intelligence of our guide, who is an expert at finding the human beings behind famous names and movie-star facades.
Harmetz is no newcomer to the Hollywood scene. At 13 she stuffed photos of Esther Williams and Van Johnson into envelopes for fan clubs; later she broke into writing via both Modern Screen and the The Atlantic. She learned early to distrust the hypocritical largesse of publicity-hungry studios and developed a distaste for the ''superficiality and publicness'' of movie-star friendships. But she never lost her curiosity about ''the schizophrenic gulf'' between the fabulous images on the silver screen and the mundane manipulations that put them there.
She has her failings. Some of her prose is more flowery than precise. Can such neologisms as ''software'' and ''protecting the downside'' really be described as ''dusty''? Did the noted director Sergio Leone really shoot ''much of his film from the wrong angles''?
More substantively, she sometimes forgets - like so many profilers - to keep her subjects in perspective. Sam Peckinpah comes off more like a misunderstood philosopher than a wildly uneven director with a weakness for overstatement. Jessica Lange daydreams about returning to her roots, and Harmetz nearly swoons at the romance of it all. Up close, Clint Eastwood's stony face is ''so sensitive that it could belong to one of Dostoevsky's tortured characters.'' Such passages miss the steely skepticism that strengthens her best writing.
Like a first-rate movie, though, ''Rolling Breaks'' rolls over its own shortcomings and leaves the reader with a string of vivid images that will stay in memory a long time: an ancient Mary Pickford, murmuring at visiting journalists from behind a half-closed bedroom door; a rustic Jane Fonda, swilling apple juice from a plastic jug and explaining the political importance of a stable marriage; a garrulous Rona Barrett, wearing a telephone receiver (''her tool and her weapon'') as constantly as an earring; and lots of others.
Just as impressively, Harmetz condenses the complicated David Begelman scandal into 31 pages that are almost as involving as ''Indecent Exposure,'' reporter David McClintick's hefty tome on the subject. And she makes a subject as potentially dry as her title phrase - short for ''rolling breakeven,'' a cycle of profits and deficits - seem as compelling as a front-page headline.
Offered a shot at Hollywood stardom, the down-to-earth Harmetz says she would turn it down, preferring to observe the spectacle from outside. That's good news for readers who find her essays as fascinating as the industry they're about.