Nora Ephron's ''This Is My Life'' -- With the comedy, the novelist and screenwriter takes her place in the director's chair

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.”

Julie Kavner also has something to prove, though in her self-deprecating style she won’t quite admit it. ”The focus of the movie really isn’t on me, it’s on Dottie’s kids,” she insists. A well-respected character actress (and the voice of Marge on The Simpsons), Kavner, 40, has had a career that has successfully but quietly progressed from television comedy to movies. Rhoda‘s little sister on the 1974-78 series and the chameleon-like sidekick on Tracey Ullman’s variety show, she also played the protective mother in Woody Allen’s Radio Days and was the loyal nurse opposite Robin Williams in Penny Marshall’s 1990 Awakenings. Despite Kavner’s denials, this is her first chance to prove she can carry a movie.

Housed in a modern studio in suburban Toronto, the This Is My Life set seems fairly relaxed despite a first-time director’s pressure to finish on schedule and within a tight $10 million budget (Ephron did both). Today’s scene revolves around a confrontation between Dottie and her daughters in a Victorian-style ice cream parlor meant to resemble New York City’s Serendipity 3 restaurant, an Ephron favorite.

Sitting calmly off to the side on a wooden box between takes, the director sips Evian from the bottle and sucks on an orange slice. As technicians ready the next shot, crew members run in to replace huge goblets of melting ice cream. Ephron walks slowly over to the table where Kavner sits with Carrie Fisher, who plays Dottie’s high-powered agent, and Dottie’s daughters, actresses Samantha Mathis (Pump Up the Volume) and Gaby Hoffmann (Field of Dreams). Ephron speaks quietly to the foursome, sometimes leaning close and whispering in their ears. Ephron tends to suggest rather than demand; she seems more like a friend offering advice than a dictatorial director. Still, she was intimately, almost obsessively involved in every detail of the production, even ”auditioning” at least six caterers — cast and crew voted on their favorite using an Ephron-written questionnaire.

”There’s none of that male bravado,” says production designer David Chapman. ”She always convinces you that you saved the scene,” says costume designer Jeffrey Kurland.

Ephron shrugs off the notion that hers is a ”feminine” style of directing. After all, she learned her craft by observing the male directors whose movies she wrote, including Mike Nichols (Silkwood, Heartburn) and Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally…).

”I feel like Rob is a little angel on my shoulder,” says Ephron, a soft-featured, dark-haired woman who wears large red-framed glasses. ”From watching him, I learned that nothing can’t be made better and that you pull from everyone. I don’t feel that it has to do with being a woman, though you could get other people to say that.”

But being a woman does have something to do with the familial atmosphere on the set. Like Dottie, Ephron was for years a single parent (she’s now married to journalist Nicholas Pileggi, whose book Wise Guy became the 1990 film GoodFellas), and both of her sons by Bernstein, 13-year-old Jacob and 12-year-old Max, spent their spring breaks and several weekends in Toronto. In fact, most of the extras in the school-play scene are related to people on the movie, including producer Obst’s 13-year-old son, Oly.

Of course, not every working mother can bring her kids to the office — or the set. And the tension women feel between career and family is, Ephron says, very much the point of this female-dominated movie. ”Part of what we’re trying to do is show something that I think is true about families, that everybody is right and everybody is wrong,” Ephron says. ”We wanted to do something that’s honest about working women, as opposed to slogans. This stuff about quality time with your children is just garbage. To a child, there’s just time. Every mother who has gone out to dinner with her child (left behind) saying, ‘Don’t go, Mommy’ knows that guilt.”

Despite the guilt, or perhaps because of it, Ephron has become something of a legend among her friends as the resilient, updated role model for Having It All. ”Nora is a very organized person who always behaves as if she knows exactly what she’s doing-and she does,” says Fisher, who adapted her own novel Postcards From the Edge into a hit movie. ”The difference with having Nora as a director is you’re more likely to sit around and talk about relationships,” she adds, balancing on her haunches and chain-smoking in her trailer. ”I’d ask Nora a relationship question before I’d ask Mike Nichols. I do think the gals should stick together.”

”At one point in the auditions, I looked up and saw this room filled with women,” says Kavner. ”It really struck me.”

”There was no intent to get a whole woman’s team together for this film,” says Obst, fingering the silver globe she wears for luck on a beaded chain around her neck. ”It just evolved that way. But I don’t think a man could have directed this, not as tenderly. Both Nora and I left our children to make this movie about leaving your children,” she continues. ”I’m trying to have my son’s progress reports faxed to me here from L.A. We’re trying to wrap in time so Nora can go see Max in a school play in New York. The irony is not lost on me.”

Nor on Ephron, who is sufficiently seasoned in the movie business to know that while there has been a good deal of advance interest in This Is My Life (it opened the Sundance Film Festival in January), it is perceived as a ”women’s movie,” which could severely limit the potential audience. ”Men aren’t that interested in women,” Ephron says bluntly. ”Who are we kidding? Women are very interested in men because they think that if they could understand them, they could change them.”

While Ephron checks the blocking for the school-play scene, three boys dressed as autumn trees stand stiffly at the back of the stage. Their restless faces poke out of holes in their textured cardboard trunks; their arms, held straight out like branches, look as if they are growing a little too heavy.

”Mom!” yells Jacob Bernstein, whose arms have begun to twitch. ”We should get sweat pay.”

”You don’t know what it’s like,” agrees his brother, Max, who earlier had to be escorted out of his tree so he could run to the bathroom. ”You haven’t been inside these costumes.”

Their mother laughs. She wants to seem sympathetic, but after all, she’s the director.

”Once more,” she orders, and the camera rolls.