May 06, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

SNEAK PREVIEW ”The Phantom Menace” was presented for the first time to a theater full of people that weren’t Fox execs and friends of George Lucas, and reactions did not match the hype, according to Variety. The theater executives who sat in on the eight screenings in cities nationwide reacted tepidly, with polite applause, but one exhibitor said that they’re always cagey about their response. However, the Variety article says that since execs’ less-jaded families were also invited, one would have expected more applause and excitement. Part of the problem may be the enormous expectations for the movie, which no film could live up to. Some complained, though, that the movie seemed geared toward younger children. But everyone was in agreement on one thing: It will make no end of money.

CRACKING A SMILE Madonna lightened up briefly last weekend, shooting a video for ”Beautiful Stranger,” her contribution to the ”Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” soundtrack. In the video she plays a nightclub singer crooning to Dr. Evil and Austin, who fantasizes about a romantic encounter with her. No news on whether Madonna or Mike Myers had the faker British accent. Other artists to be included on the film’s soundtrack (due out June 1) include R.E.M. (who cover the Tommy James classic ”Draggin’ the Line”), Green Day, and Melanie B. (a.k.a., Scary Spice).

LEGAL WRAP-UP Busta Rhymes will receive probation after he pleaded guilty to a gun possession charge in a New York court yesterday. The 26-year-old rapper was arrested last December when cops pulled him over and found a loaded, unregistered .45 in his car…. Death Row Records honcho Marion ”Suge” Knight had his request for an early release from a California prison — where he began a nine-year sentence in 1996 for being involved with a 1992 attack on two wannabe rap artists — rejected by an appeals court. Knight claimed that the plea bargain he had struck for his sentencing was invalid, and he reportedly plans to appeal to the California Supreme Court…. Priscilla Presley won $1.74 million in a lawsuit against the producers and publicists of an in-development movie adaptation of an unauthorized bio of her, who had circulated a press release saying she ”may act as a consultant” on the project. Presley claimed her name was used without permission and she was never offered money to cooperate, but Lee Solters, the publicist for ”Child Bride: The Untold Story of Priscilla Beaulieu,” said that she had actually declined an offer. In 1996, Presley won $75,000 in a defamation lawsuit against one of the sources for ”Child Bride,” who claimed he had sex with a 14-year-old Priscilla as a bribe to introduce her to Elvis.

TROPHY TAKE Faith Hill took home four awards at the Academy of Country Music Awards last night, including top female vocalist, and Garth Brooks was named entertainer of the year for the second year in a row. Also taking home CMA trophies were the Dixie Chicks (three awards), as well as Steve Wariner and Jo Dee Messina.

CASTING Danny DeVito is reteaming with his ”Ruthless People” costar Bette Midler in ”Drowning Mona,” and, as in their last collaboration, Midler’s character is once again the shrewish victim. Here she’s a prominent and loathed resident of a small town who gets murdered, and there’s no end to her neighbors with plausible motives…. All it takes is a sappy hit show: First Melina Kanakaredes makes it big in ”Providence,” and now she’s playing Robert De Niro’s love interest. She’ll star as a TV reporter who falls for De Niro’s detective in ”15 Minutes”…. Eric McCormack (”Will & Grace”) is spending his summer vacation in the indie film ”Old Hats,” playing the director of an old-age home who is blackmailed by two of his geriatric residents into taking them on a road trip…. Was anyone waiting for the Sheen brothers’ follow-up to ”Men at Work”? Well, if you’re the one, you’ll be happy to know that Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen are together again for ”Rated X,” a small-screen ”Boogie Nights” for Showtime about the Mitchell brothers, two real-life siblings who became porn moguls in the 1970s (”Behind the Green Door”) and then went down the tubes. Estevez will direct.

SIGNING OFF Judd Nelson won’t be back for ”Suddenly Susan”’s fourth season: He reportedly agreed with the show’s producers that they had done all they could with his and Brooke Shields’ TV romance. Why that took three years to realize is still a mystery…. Hugh Downs is signing off of ”20/20” after 21 years at the anchor desk. The 78-year-old newsman is not totally retiring, though; he says he’s looking for new challenges.

REEL DEALS Tony Scott (”Enemy of the State”) is looking for adventure and heading down the highway, planning a film about the history of the Hell’s Angels. He has bought the life story of Sonny Barger, one of the original and most famous motorcycle mischief-makers, and is basing his film around Barger’s tales, from Altamont to prison stays…. John Boorman (”The General”) will direct an adaptation of Jack London’s ”The Sea Wolf” from a script currently being reworked by David Koepp (”Jurassic Park”).

ON THE AIR You’ll finally be able to SEE radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger berate you for your misbehavior: She’s signed a deal with Paramount Domestic TV to develop a daily syndicated television show for a reported $3 million. Although the format isn’t clear yet, she says she won’t just take calls like she does on her radio program.

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