This 'First Lady of the American Theater' began her illustrious eight-decade-long career as a child actress on the Washington stage at age five. By age nine, Hayes had made her Broadway debut and was soon starring as the embodiment of sunny optimism, "Pollyanna". Around the same time, she made her film debut in the 1910 short "Jean and the Calico Cat" and appeared in other New York-produced films as a juvenile.
As a young adult, the petite, sweet-featured but plain-looking Hayes triumphed in a series of comic ingenue roles, most notably in "Dear Brutus", during the 1920s. ("I was squeezing cuteness out of my greasepaint tubes and scooping charm out of my cold cream jars", she later said.) She also proved herself a serious dramatic performer and was acclaimed for her humanized, accessible portrayals of British queens, in Maxwells Anderson's "Mary of Scotland" (1933) and--a touchstone performance--"Victoria Regina" (1935).
Hayes won an Oscar for her Hollywood debut in the weepie, "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931), scripted by her husband Charles MacArthur, and was also hailed for her work in Frank Borzage's "A Farewell to Arms" (1932) and for reprising her stage role in "What Every Woman Knows" (1934) as a seemingly self-effacing, manipulative wife. Nonetheless, by 1935 MGM had given up trying to make a movie star out of her and Hayes returned to the stage for the next 15 years.
Hayes did not return to films until she was ready for character parts, beginning with her performance as the over-wrought mother of a communist son in "My Son John" (1952), followed by her moving work as the judgmental grand duchess in "Anastasia" (1956). Retiring from the stage in 1971, she found herself in demand as "cute", feisty characters, like the eccentric passenger in "Airport" (1970), a performance which netted her a second Oscar. During the same period she became a fixture in Disney films like "Herbie Rides Again" (1974) and "Candleshoe" (1977), starred opposite Mildred Natwick as mystery writers-turned-sleuths on the TV series "The Snoop Sisters" (1973-74) and even essayed the role of Agatha Christie detective Miss Marple in the 1983 made-for-TV movie "The Carribean Mystery".
Hayes was married to playwright-screenwriter Charles MacArthur from 1928 until his death in 1956; their son, James MacArthur, is an actor.