Twentieth Century Fox is taking no chances. They're lucky enough to have box-office queen Julia Roberts starring in Joel Schumacher's upcoming "Dying Young," the story of a woman who takes a job as a companion to a wealthy man (played by Campbell Scott). And if the title suggests she won't make it until the end of the picture, then the title must go.

"The title is definitely a bit downbeat, too dead-on . . . no pun intended," said Fox distribution chief Tom Sherak. "We're looking for something that will be a `plus' when it's time to market the picture - not something to overcome. Julia Roberts isn't the one who is sick and, in fact, there's no death at all. We're trying to clear up any possible misperceptions."Though the trade publications have reported that Fox will employ the same strategy used so successfully with "Home Alone," releasing this film in mid-May to get a jump on the summer competition, Sherak maintains that no decision has been made.

"All the studios are jockeying around," he said. "And no definite release date is possible until we settle on a title. You can tell the exhibitors that `Dying Young' is only a working title. But, if they hear it enough times, you get locked in." - ELAINE DUTKA

- Fun couples: well, they both wear gloves:

HOLLYWOOD - The 1991 award for Fun Couple at the Oscars had to go to Madonna and Michael Jackson. Television viewers were still wiping the steam off their television screens from Madonna's bodytalk rendition of "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" when a camera panning the Shrine Auditorium audience zeroed in on the two singers sitting together in the front row.

There had been a Madonna-Michael Jackson sighting a week earlier during the busy lunch hour at the Ivy restaurant, a popular industry hangout in West Hollywood. Then, after the Academy Awards, the Talks of the Town showed up at Swifty Lazar's apres-Oscar party at Spago, where Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd asked Madonna how she got Jackson out for the evening. "Michael's coming out more," she said.

Since being seen together at these venues is often the point of going, Hollywood insiders are naturally wondering what it all means. A Madonna-Michael Jackson album? A movie? So far, no rumors of a romance.

A source who knows both pop superstars well says that Madonna and Jackson hit it off at a party last month and have been hanging out a lot - and talking business a little - ever since. But any talk of a merger has been confined to recording a duet or two, and though Sony's Columbia might like to have Madonna as a bonus to the mega-deal it just signed with Jackson, the source says there is no movie in the offing. -ELAINE DUTKA

- BIRD BRAINS: And We Thought Tweety Told Him:

HOLLYWOOD - If the names of the Academy Award winners are top secret until the moment the envelopes are opened, which little bird told Woody Woodpecker that Nick Park's "Creature Comforts" won the Oscar for best animated short film Monday night? Did Price Waterhouse spring a leak?

Actually, Price Waterhouse did break its vow of silence, but only by a few minutes. Cartoonist David Spafford created three versions of Woody announcing the winner (there were only three nominees in the category) and the show's director, Jeff Margulies, wasn't tipped to the actual winner until five minutes before the animated bird opened the animated envelope.

Price Waterhouse's Frank Johnson said that they have broken their silence before for animated presenters. "It doesn't bother me," Johnson said. "It's comparable to (having a star open the envelope on stage). It's a secret until it's opened. But in this case it's opened by me." - DAVID J. FOX

- EXECUTIVE SUITE: Watch Out for Falling Moguls:

HOLLYWOOD - If events seemed to be moving swiftly at Paramount last week, where producer Stanley Jaffe was installed in a job above chairman and chief executive officer Frank Mancuso and Mancuso promptly quit and sued, consider the pace at New York-based Premiere magazine.

The May issue of the magazine, with its annual ranking of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood, was at the printers when word of Jaffe's appointment came down. Editors scrambled to upgrade Jaffe, who was ranked somewhere in the 50s, to 9th, and to downgrade Mancuso, who had been 10th, to 28th.

They also had to rewrite copy to reflect the changes. In the "What to watch for" section for Jaffe, they wrote "Run-ins with Mancuso ..."; in the "Weaknesses" section for Mancuso, they wrote "Said to have antagonized Jaffe earlier. Uh-oh." Of course, Premiere was facing its own uh-oh. No sooner did they make those changes and get the issue on the press when Mancuso quit his job and announced a $45 million lawsuit against Paramount.

"It was pretty crazy around here," said Deborah Pines, a Premiere executive editor. "We covered ourselves pretty well (with the Jaffe change), but when Mancuso quit, we were on the press."

The magazine purred through the presses in New Jersey Wednesday, but by the time the issue hit the newstands five days later, the unemployed Mancuso's true ranking was somewhere south of No. 100. That the magazine freeze-framed a major executive in free fall may not seem all that odd in Hollywood, where the bottom always seems to be falling out below somebody, but its timing caught Premiere by surprise.

"The irony is that there were no major upheavals all year," Pines said. "It had been pretty quiet for executives." - JACK MATHEWS

- ODD COUPLES: Yo, Michel! Fight the Power:

HOLLYWOOD - The controversial new film "New Jack City" is a black, inner-city story, directed by a black film maker, featuring songs by rap and soul artists Ice-T, Keith Sweat, Johnny Gill, 2 Live Crew, Troop, LeVert and Queen Latifah. So why did Warner Bros. hire a white guy from Lyon, France, to write the film's gritty, rhythmic score?

"There was a scheduling problem, and Wally Badarou (the African-born composer originally hired) couldn't deliver on time," said Gary LeMel, president of Warners' music division.

At LeMel's suggestion, director Mario Van Peebles turned to 52-year-old Michel Colombier, and he put together a score in three weeks - half the normal time.

"The point was to retain the essence of black music - tribal percussions," Colombier said. But the composer also captured the sounds of the street: you can hear the hissing intake of a crack cocaine pipe in between the Brazilian drums and blues guitars.

If Van Peebles had any doubts about Colombier, they were eased by a glance at the composer's resume. Trained in classical music, Colombier has been the only white musician in a Caribbean band and has played on stage with Earth, Wind and Fire. Now he writes film scores, avant-garde music for Twyla Tharp's dancers, and ballets.

"There's no racism in music," Colombier insists. "You're either a good musician or you're not." - NINA J. EASTON

- BIG DEALS:

- Diane Keaton, who can use a high-profile role in a commercial film, has been set to co-star with Steve Martin in Touchstone Pictures' remake of Vincente Minnelli's 1950 "Father of the Bride." The roles were played in the original by Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy.

Sources say that the movie will be updated to reflect changing times, but will essentially remain a story about an exasperated father experiencing the trials and tribulations of his only daughter's wedding. Martin Short has been signed for a cameo, but the role of the daughter - played in the original by 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor - is still uncast. The film, which begins shooting in May, reunites Keaton with her "Baby Boom" director, Charles Shyer.

- In 1984, "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Bill Murray got savaged by critics for attempting a serious dramatic role in the remake of the 1946 Tyrone Power classic "The Razor's Edge" and has stuck with comedy ever since. But he may be heading into treacherous critical waters again.

Sources close to Murray say his next film project may be "Mad Dogs and Glory," in which he would co-star with Really Serious Actor Robert De Niro. The script, by Richard Price ("The Color of Money"), is the story of a thug loan shark (the role Murray would play) whose life is saved by a lonely, gun-shy cop (De Niro). As a thank-you for the cop's good deed, the loan shark sends him a woman who becomes much more than a gratuity.

"Mad Dogs and Glory" will be produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by John McNaughton, whose last film was "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer."

- Debra Winger will play one of the two principal female roles in Penny Marshall's "A League of Their Own," the story of a women's baseball team during World War II. The other part has yet to be filled. Put in turnaround by Fox, "League" was picked up by Columbia, distributor of Marshall's Oscar-nominated "Awakenings," when the studio signed a deal with her last fall. Shooting is scheduled to begin this summer.

- Summer Shootout: Guy to Beat Fires Arrows and Danced With Wolves:

HOLLYWOOD - The movie to beat this summer appears to be Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," which Warner Bros. plans to open on June 14. You can tell the movie has heat by the way the other major studios are avoiding opening their own movies the same day.

"The idea is to get a strong position," said a spokesman for Castle Rock Entertainment, whose "City Slickers," starring Billy Crystal, was first scheduled to open on June 21, then changed to June 14. Then, once the June 14 date for "Robin Hood" became "firm," Castle Rock shifted "Slickers" to June 12.

The reason for the earlier scheduling? "We were buoyed by the reaction from test audiences, the movie's ready, and this way we get a nice jump on `Naked Gun 2 1/2,' which also is a comedy," the spokesman said.

"Naked Gun 2 1/2," the sequel to Paramount's successful 1988 comedy, will open June 28, but it was pushed back from an opening date of May 22 that had been originally announced. That date would have put it in direct competition with Universal Pictures' highly anticipated "Backdraft," opening May 24. And so the jockeying goes. . . .

With an estimated 55 films scheduled to be released by the major studios in the highly competitive mid-May to early September summer season, the positioning of opening dates becomes a critical marketing decision. This summer will be even tighter than last year, when the major companies opened 37 movies during the same period.

"No one wants to break five big pictures on the same date. They'll get killed," said John Krier of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., a company that supplies box-office data to theater operators.

"A case in point was the recent opening of `Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II' - no one wants to go up against it. As a result, it was the only movie to open nationally that weekend," Krier said. Last year, the original "Turtles" movie was a surprise winner, scoring $133 million to date at the box office.

Some studios, like Fox, MGM and Orion, are playing their release dates close to the vest and haven't designated any film to open after mid-May. All the jostling is leaving theater owners in a cloud as to how to book their screens this summer, Krier said.

Fox Executive Vice President Tom Sherak said, "Every year you go through a period of jockeying around . . . you have to consider what's going on with the opposition. They're jockeying like we're jockeying.

"You don't want to open two adult pictures the same day. You don't want two teen pictures the same day."

Sherak said this year, Fox will start its summer on May 17.\