ICONS by Denise Worrell (Atlantic Monthly: $18.95; 270 pp.)

For the sensational tabloids, covering Hollywood is easy. Envisioning stars as icons of the one religion all Americans share--the religion of success--they can gush unabashedly about celebrities. In so doing, they give celebrities not only "the power of being beautiful and triumphant," as Time editor Otto Friedrich writes in this book's introduction, but of "knowing the answers that we do not know, the answers on how to live, how to be happy, how to be successful." For Time correspondent Denise Worrell, on the other hand, composing these 11 profiles of actors and directors must have been a trickier task, for she is trying to reach a more sophisticated audience, one well aware that the stars don't possess any especially profound answers. Less tolerant of gush, these readers undoubtedly expect Worrell to cultivate a measure of distance from the Hollywood mystique.

Friedrich claims that Worrell achieves this distance by showing that the stars suffer from the same fears and doubts as the rest of us. Most of Worrell's subjects, however, seem overworked rather than plagued by "pain and fear," as Friedrich writes, and most seem to have set about correcting the problem. In a surprisingly candid interview, for example, Steven Spielberg mentions some childhood fears (he had been particularly spooked by the "arms, heads and tentacles" of trees outside his bedroom window), but he seems genuinely enthusiastic about his new office (featuring Technicolor gardens and streams that curl into waterfalls) and resoundingly determined to limit his hours there so he can spend time with his baby daughter: "I'm great with a movie camera between me and reality, but she's just the excuse I need to look real life in the eye and not be afraid of what I discover."

Worrell's reporting is more celebratory than Friedrich suggests, then, but it is not without its moments of critical distance. While Worrell offers compelling descriptions, for instance, of the stars she admires, she stands back and mercilessly allows others to satirize themselves. "He's a very deep person," Jane Fonda says of Michael Jackson, citing the time she offered to cast him as Peter Pan in a film, telling him, " 'You are Peter Pan.' He got this expression on his face and I said, 'What's the matter?' He said, 'You don't realize what you've just said. All over my walls at home are drawings of Peter Pan. I understand that story.' He reacted very emotionally."

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