Correction appended, Oct. 17, 2016
Simply put, Elizabeth Taylor was the biggest star of the LIFE era. She appeared on the magazine’s cover a record 14 times, starting when she was just 15 years old, and over the following decades many of LIFE’s finest photographers—Paul Schutzer, Peter Stackpole, Allan Grant and George Silk among them—captured the quintessential movie star in love, at work and basking (with consummate grace) in the kind of international fame, comprised of equal parts respect and adulation, that most entertainers today can only dream about.
But a magazine only has so many pages—and countless pictures by LIFE’s peripatetic photographers never made it into print. Here, LIFE.com presents a selection of the very best photographs of the Hollywood icon—some that appeared in the magazine, and many that were never published in its pages—including shots from her very first wedding, when she was just 18 years old; from the sets of Giant and Cleopatra; from studio backlots (with her dear friend and soul mate, Montgomery Clift); and from her tumultuous romance with two-time husband and bigger-than-life star in is own right, Richard Burton.
What’s especially enlightening—and, for film buffs, thrilling—about digging through LIFE’s archives is not only the astonishing photography that so often comes to light, but the supporting materials that accompany the photos, negatives, contact sheets and prints.
For example, a March 30, 1962, memo sent by LIFE reporter George Caturani in Rome to the LIFE offices in New York reads, in part:
Herewith seven rolls of undeveloped black and white shot by [Paul] Schutzer . . . on the set of “Cleopatra” and inside Burton’s dressing room. . . . Liz on set looks absolutely relaxed. Whatever relationship there is between Liz and Burton [their affair while filming “Cleopatra” is now the stuff of Hollywood legend], they’ve decided to make the fact they enjoy each other as obvious as the famous nose on famous Cleopatra’s face.
With those sorts of insights and with that sort of access, it’s no surprise that, through the years, LIFE managed to so closely chronicle the public and private world of Liz Taylor as a teen, a young woman and later, at the very height of her career, as quite simply the biggest movie star in the world.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.
Correction: A photo caption in the original version of this gallery included an incorrect location of where Elizabeth Taylor was pictured.