Beware the 9-year-old girl whose mom is nominated for an Oscar: Her inner fashionista is bound to start barking orders. "Oh God, she'd want to take over," Oscar hopeful Diane Lane says of involving her daughter Eleanor in the search for the perfect dress. "She'd be doing sketches, she'd be making the calls to designers." After all, even on non-Oscar days, "she'll pull [fancy] shoes out and tell me to wear them to take her to school," notes Lane, sipping a venti Starbucks hot tea. "And I'm like, 'Honey, you know what? I appreciate you like to see me looking good, but time and place, time and place!' "

For Lane, the time (Oscar night, March 23) and place (Hollywood's Kodak Theatre) are finally arriving after a 32-year acting career that ignited with a TIME cover at age 14 and has been simmering quietly ever since. With her Best Actress nod for Unfaithful, a marital drama driven by Lane's raw, passionate turn as a cheating wife, the 38-year-old star is A-list at last. "I never dared to dream this big," she says. "I just didn't go there."

Even though others have been predicting her success for years. "She has a sexuality but also a likability, which is so rare," says Unfaithful director Adrian Lyne. Plus, "she's kind of tough," notes Alec Baldwin, who co-starred with Lane in a 1995 TV production of A Streetcar Named Desire. "She just has a very take-it-or-leave-it quality." Not to mention "a stunning face," says Lyne. "I was always begging her not to put makeup on."

Lane's boyfriend of one year, actor Josh Brolin (TV's Mister Sterling), is similarly smitten. The pair first met nine years ago, but after being reintroduced in 2002, "I could not stop thinking about her," notes Brolin, 35, who has two children from an earlier marriage. "There is nobody I know that is more open. And her laugh is as contagious as a kid's."

As a kid herself, Lane was practically reared on the stage. The only child of Burt Lane, an acting coach who died of cancer last year, and Colleen Price, 66, a singer and former Playboy centerfold, Lane began performing with the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City at 6. "The joke was that it was better than daycare," says Lane, whose parents divorced in 1965.

By age 12, between work and school, "I was kind of a tired-looking girl," she recalls. Still, she kept acting and landed a big role in 1979's A Little Romance, prompting the TIME cover as one of "Hollywood's Whiz Kids." "Kissinger's picture was in the corner," she notes. "That to me explained it all, because it meant that he was a living, breathing human being too. It humanized celebrity for me."

But there were bumps along the road for Lane, including a strained relationship with her mother. After the failure of 1984's The Cotton Club (costarring her future Unfaithful husband Richard Gere) and the death of her grandmother, Lane decided to take a break. During that time "my mom and I buried the hatchet," she says, "and now we're very close."

Ditto for her relationship with ex-husband Christopher Lambert, an actor whom she divorced in 1994 after five years of marriage. "We're partners raising Eleanor," she says. Notes Lane's mom, Colleen: "As a parent, she drives me crazy! She's so focused she puts all us mere mortals to shame." Indeed, in conversations with Lane, observes family friend Gena Rowlands, "Eleanor is the third word in every sentence."

Should Lane be called to the podium come Oscar night, Eleanor, along with memories of Lane's late father, is sure to be on her mind. "He was bursting with pride over anything I did," says Lane, who spent several weeks at her dad's bedside in Manhattan before he died. "He had saved those buttons they give you for elementary graduation: This is for good citizenship, this is for physical fitness. He just handed them to me. It was very sweet." Win or lose, says Lane, "I feel like the kid came through for the people who have patted me on the back over the years. It's been a long journey right to here."

Michelle Tauber
Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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  • Julie Jordan.