In a darkened school auditorium, beneath a banner that reads ''T.S. Eliot Night'' in big black letters, a dozen kids shuffle onto the stage in elaborate costumes: A bespectacled blond boy is stuffed inside a foam Ionic column; a girl wearing a black leotard and tights and carrying a cardboard scythe poses as the Grim Reaper.
A woman with a slightly nasal but authoritative voice the kind that might belong to an anxious teacher calls out from the audience. ''Bird!'' she shouts to a little girl with a frizzy white wig, red beaked nose, and flowing wings. ''Could you flap a little?'' The girl flaps dutifully, her white Afro bobbing in time with her wings, and the woman, Nora Ephron, smiles in satisfaction. For journalist-turned-screenwriter Ephron, this rehearsal of an exceptionally precocious school play a scene in the comedy This Is My Life is an eagerly awaited chance to test her wings as a director.
In many ways, it is a project tailor-made for Ephron. Based on Meg Wolitzer's 1988 novel This Is Your Life, the film follows the rise from department-store cosmetics saleswoman to star stand-up comic of Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner), a single mother who must leave her two young daughters behind in New York to make it big in L.A. The title refers to Dottie's propensity for plumbing her real-life trials for her best material a tactic Ephron herself used to make her name as a writer.
With a biting comic style, Ephron wrote articles about everything from the Pillsbury Bake-Off to her own flat chest in the '70s. She became a best- selling novelist in 1983 with Heartburn, a hilarious, thinly veiled account of the breakup of her marriage to Watergate chronicler Carl Bernstein. Then she penned the screenplays for Heartburn, Silkwood (with Alice Arlen), and When Harry Met Sally..., receiving Oscar nominations for the last two. In the process, she became a role model and feminist icon for many of Hollywood's most powerful women. Producer Lynda Obst (The Fisher King), a longtime Ephron friend and fan, had Columbia option Wolitzer's novel specifically for Ephron to direct (the project eventually ended up at Fox). Says another friend, Carrie Fisher, who has a cameo in This Is My Life, ''Nora's a trailblazer. I'm eating her dust.''
Trailblazing aside, Ephron has a lot riding on this film. Her last two screenwriting ventures, Cookie with Peter Falk and My Blue Heaven with Steve Martin, were both critical and commercial failures. The leap from writer to director is never easy, and despite the successes of Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand, Hollywood's directorial elite is almost exclusively a male club. But Ephron, 50, who wrote the screenplay with her sister Delia, 47, feels especially comfortable with her subject matter. ''I know the emotional world of this movie,'' she says. ''I couldn't have directed my first movie about Charlemagne.''