IT'S HOLLYWOOD SCRIPTURE

It is common in the theater for producers to stage readings of a playwright's work in hopes that potential backers will like the play enough to invest money in it.

Readings of films in script form, while not as common, certainly do occur. They're not so much to raise capital as to find out which movie scenes work and which don't. Usually, such readings are done by the filmmakers' friends rather than auditioning actors. Case in point: Steven Spielberg, whose company, Amblin Entertainment, recently held bicoastal readings of two different projects that Spielberg is developing.

The one apparently closer to production is Cape Fear, a remake of a 1962 thriller that starred Robert Mitchum as a revenge-seeking convict who terrorizes the family of the man who put him away. Set to star in the remake is Robert De Niro. Spielberg will executive produce, and Martin Scorsese has been signed to direct. A reading of the new Cape Fear, written by Wesley Strick, was staged at the Manhattan eatery Tribeca Grill, which is co-owned by De Niro. Taking part in the Cape Fear reading along with De Niro were Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates and Spielberg's girlfriend, Kate Capshaw. Days earlier, Spielberg's company had orchestrated a reading in L.A. for a film the director has been wanting to make for years, Schindler's List, based on the 1982 Thomas Keneally best-seller about a Gentile who helps Jews escape from Poland during World War II. Capshaw was also a reader for Steven Zaillian's script of Schindler's List. The part of Schindler was read by Warren Beatty, who has yet to commit to the film. Spielberg too remains undecided about whether he'll direct it.

Spielberg declined to say how the dual readings went. According to his spokesman, Spielberg "never comments on future projects."

DOUGLAS TAKES A FLYER

Radio Flyer, on the other hand, was already two weeks into production at Columbia Studios when Michael Douglas (who was producing the film, but not acting in it) decided he'd made a mistake in letting the project's screenwriter, David Mickey Evans, be a first-time director.

Calling Evans's screenplay about a waitress unable to stop a man from abusing her and her children "the best script I've ever read," Douglas nevertheless fired Evans and replaced him with Richard Donner, who directed Lethal Weapon.

"Nothing against [Evans]," says Douglas. "He just couldn't handle both jobs."

Rosanna Arquette was to have portrayed the waitress, but she dropped out when production ceased. The movie was reportedly gearing up again with Debra Winger in the starring role, but Winger has since had second thoughts and has apparently passed on the project. Where does that leave the best script Michael Douglas has ever read? With an October start date and no leading lady.

MASON BUYS CONCEPT

Of course, all movies begin not with the script but with the idea, or what Hollywood likes to call the "concept." And for director Paul (Spike of Bensonhurst) Morrissey the concept right now continues to be comedy.

He hasn't commissioned a script yet, but Morrissey does have an outline for a new movie and a commitment from Jackie Mason to be in it. The project, Urban Renewal, is about a young con man who is ordered by a court to perform six months of community service in a Miami Beach nursing home. Once there he encounters five elderly gents, all former successful businessmen who are now running their own con out of the home.

Co-producer Chris Zarpas of Island Pictures hopes to start filming in 1991 in Miami Beach. Besides Mason, Zarpas's hit list of comedians he would like to see playing the elderly businessmen includes Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Shecky Greene and Jack Carter.

Given Mason's recent success with his one-man stage show (his second, Jackie Mason: Brand New, arrives on Broadway in October), will he mind sharing the spotlight with the likes of Berle and the others? "I never turned down a job because of billing," says Mason. "You're an idiot if you're threatened by the ability of others. If you have any brains, it's a compliment."