LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Hugh Grant faces one of his most significant screen tests this weekend, and the sneak previews of ``Nine Months'' may show whether the British star's appeal has dimmed or is as strong as ever.

Twentieth Century Fox plans to sneak the comedy into about 1,000 North American theaters Saturday night in advance of the film's nationwide opening Wednesday. Grant's other new movie, ``An Awfully Big Adventure,'' debuts July 21 in selected cities.

``Nine Months,'' which stars Grant as a nervous expectant father, is the actor's first major studio film and his first release following his June 27 arrest with a prostitute. The incident prompted a flood of gossipy stories in the tabloid and mainstream media.

``We have our fingers crossed,'' said Tom Sherak, Fox's executive vice president. ``There's no question that the press has made this a movie that has much more awareness than the amount of marketing dollars we've spent so far.''

The movie, co-starring Julianne Moore and Tom Arnold, faces strong competition from ``Apollo 13'' and today's release of ``First Knight,'' but Fox believes it will appeal strongly to women. It was directed by Christopher Columbus, whose blockbuster credits include ``Home Alone'' and ``Mrs. Doubtfire.''

Grant's two upcoming films will challenge the show business adage that any publicity is good publicity. Woody Allen's sexual relationship with adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn disproved that maxim, but many think Grant will not be hurt by his admitted solicitation.

``He committed the oldest sin in the history of man,'' Sherak said. ``It isn't something where you'll always have people saying, `How dare he!' He didn't do anything that men haven't done before.''

The final version of ``Nine Months'' does not include Grant in mug shot and jail scenes that have drawn snickers from audiences viewing previews of the film. Those scenes were cut from the movie before Grant's arrest, Fox says.

``An Awfully Big Adventure'' is directed by Mike Newell, the same director of Grant's 1994 hit ``Four Weddings and a Funeral.'' The movie stars Grant as the often churlish Meredith Potter, a manager and director in a Liverpool theater.

Although the film also stars ``Die Hard'' veteran Alan Rickman, it is more a complicated art film than a major crowd-pleaser and isn't expected to be a big commercial hit. It played at some of the top film festivals earlier this year.

The distributor, Fine Line Features, hopes audiences will judge Grant's performance, the story _ and nothing else.

``There's probably a greater interest, although Hugh was doing a lot of press anyway for this and `Nine Months,''' said Liz Manne, Fine Line's senior vice president for marketing.

``The good news is he's still doing `The Tonight Show,' Letterman and Larry King. Maybe the viewership of those shows will be a little higher now,'' she said.

Newell concurred. ``I imagine there's a tremendous curiosity due to circumstances outside of the movie,'' the director said. ``But you know, honestly, I'm not particularly bothered. Who did he hurt? Really?''

Mike Fenton, the president of the Casting Society of America and a leading casting director, said Grant's arrest should have no impact on his career.

``He didn't murder anyone, for crying out loud. Let's get our priorities straight,'' said Fenton, who cast the movie ``Congo'' and the upcoming ``Operation Dumbo Drop.''

Fenton said several of his young female colleagues were bothered by the arrest. But he said Grant's talent far exceeds the scandal, and the arrest would quickly be forgotten.

Added Newell: ``I would cast him again in a shot.''