Geraldine Fitzgerald was born in Greystones, County Wicklow, south of Dublin, the daughter of Edith and Edward Fitzgerald, who was an attorney. Her father was Catholic and her mother a Protestant who converted to Catholicism. She studied painting at the Dublin School of Art and inspired by her aunt, the actress/director Shelah Richards, Geraldine Fitzgerald began her acting career in 1932 in theatre in her native Dublin before moving to London where she studied painting at the Polytechnic School of Art in London and was taken to Twickenham Studios (London) where she played a small role in a British film 1934. She quickly came to be regarded as one of the British film industry's most promising young performers and her most successful film of this period was The Mill on the Floss (1937).
Her success led her to America and Broadway in 1938, and while appearing opposite Orson Welles in the Mercury Theatre production of Heartbreak House, she was seen by the film producer Hal B. Wallis who signed her to a seven-year film contract. She achieved two significant successes in 1939; she received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Isabella Linton in Wuthering Heights and had an important role in Dark Victory, with both films achieving great box office success.
She appeared in Shining Victory (1941) and Watch on the Rhine (1943) for Warner Bros., and Wilson (1944) for Fox, but her career was hampered by her frequent clashes with the management of the studio, and the suspensions that resulted. She lost the role of 'Brigid O'Shaughnessy', the villainess of The Maltese Falcon due to her clashes with Jack Warner. Although she continued to work frequently throughout the 1940s, the quality of her roles diminished and her career began to lose momentum. She became a U.S. citizen during World War II in a display of solidarity with her adopted country. In 1946, shortly after completing work on Three Strangers, she left Hollywood to return to New York City where she married her second husband Stuart Scheftel, a grandson of Isidor Straus. She returned to Britain to film So Evil My Love (1948) and received strong reviews for her performance as an alcoholic adultress. In 1951 she appeared in The Late Edwina Black before returning to America.
The 1950s provided her with very few opportunities in film, but in the 1960s she asserted herself as a character actress, and her career enjoyed a revival. Among her successful films of this period were Ten North Frederick (1958), The Pawnbroker (1964) and Rachel, Rachel (1968). Her other films include The Mango Tree (1977) (for which she received an Australian Film Institute "Best Actress" nomination), Arthur (1981), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988).
From the 1940s she began to act more on stage and she won acclaim for her performance in the 1971 revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night. She also achieved success as a theatre director, becoming one of the first women to receive a Tony Award nomination for directing (1982) for the production Mass Appeal.
She also appeared frequently on television in such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Robert Montgomery Presents, Naked City, St. Elsewhere and Cagney and Lacey. In 1983, she played Rose Kennedy in the mini-series Kennedy. In 1986, Fitzgerald starred alongside Tuesday Weld and River Phoenix in the critically acclaimed CBS television movie Circle of Violence about domestic elder abuse, and in 1987, she played the title role in the TV pilot Mabel and Max, (Barbra Streisand's first television pilot production). She received anEmmy Award nomination for a guest role playing Anna in The Golden Girls Mother's Day episode in 1988 (Fitzgerald played another character in the episode Not Another Monday). She won a Daytime Emmy award for her appearance in the episode 'Rodeo Red and the Runaways' on NBC Special Treat.
In 1976 she began a career as a cabaret singer with the show Streetsongs which played three successful runs on Broadway and was the subject of a PBS television special.
Geraldine Fitzgerald has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to television, at 6353 Hollywood Boulevard.
She was the mother of the TV, film and theater director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Let It Be and Brideshead Revisited) by her first marriage (to Sir Edward Lindsay-Hogg, 4th Bt.) and a daughter, Susan Scheftel by her second marriage to American businessman Stuart Scheftel, grandson of Macy's co-owner and Titanic victim Isidor Straus. Her son's resemblance to Orson Welles, with whom she had worked and been linked with romantically in the late 1930s, led to rumors Welles was the boy's father. Fitzgerald never confirmed this to her son, but in his 2011 autobiography Lindsay-Hogg reported that his mother's friend Gloria Vanderbilt had revealed that Welles was his natural father. She was a great aunt of actress Tara Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald died at age 91 in New York City following a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease.