Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson (out of print). An epic biography for the movies' first epic personality. Robinson traces Charlie from London poverty to global fame, from adulation to backlash and back again, with detail and clarity. What emerges is a portrait of an artist caught helplessly in the web of his own fame. A model of the form.

Swanson on Swanson by Gloria Swanson (out of print). The life of a screen diva as seen from the inside, with all the dirt and colossal ego intact. Published in 1980, it remains one of the most deliciously readable yet intelligently clear-sighted takes on the celebrity bubble. Worth it for Swanson's thoughts on Norma Desmond alone.

Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth (Nook Book, $15). You could read Peter Manso's 1,100-page doorstop, Brando, or the actor's own, 480-page autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. But Bosworth somehow gets to the knotted, self-loathing heart of Marlon's darkness in 228 elegant pages. By the time you get to the epilogue, you feel as if Brando's in the room with you.

Becoming Mae West by Emily Wortis Leider (out of print). West is one of those screen icons who seem fixed, unchangeable, and forever. Leider deftly shows how West's most interesting years were on the New York stage and how Hollywood captured only the final ossification of her sexually licentious persona.

The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book by Arlene Croce (Educational Publisher, $30). Originally published in 1972 and long out of print, this title resurfaced in 2010 to the rapture of dance fans and lovers of classic musicals. It looks like a picture book, but it's much, much more: Croce breaks down the films, and the individual dances in them, in ways that make you appreciate them in wholly new ways.

All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough (Touchstone, $14). With contributions from Gloria Steinem, Joyce Carol Oates, Molly Haskell, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Clare Boothe Luce, this book comes at Marilyn from all sides — and still never gets to the bottom of her mystique.

—  Ty Burr's new book, Gods Like Us, is a meditation on the evolution of fame and stardom