Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t act much these days—she’s semiretired, choosing instead to focus on her lifestyle brand, Goop. Nevertheless, her recent testimony in a trial over a skiing accident was a performance of a sort, and it may be the best we get from her for some time.
Paltrow has been sued by a retired optometrist named Terry Sanderson, who claims she crashed into him on the slopes at a Utah ski resort in 2016, knocking him out, breaking four of his ribs, and causing a traumatic brain injury. He is seeking $300,000 in damages. Paltrow has countersued for $1 plus legal fees. Her lawyers claim that Sanderson ran into her that day and that his health problems were not a result of the accident.
The trial began earlier this week, and things got pretty wacky when Paltrow took the stand on Friday afternoon. But even before that, the trial was a total comedy. Steve Owens, Paltrow’s main lawyer, seems right out of Arrested Development, and he kicked the trial off with a couple of knee-slappers early on. To start, he extravagantly waved a dollar bill around the courtroom in an attempt to show the jury how little Paltrow was asking for, but ended up looking so silly that his message didn’t land. At another point, the only thing that seemed to be happening was he and a witness repeating the phrase “spread eagle” back and forth to each other. Owens kept trying and failing to summon gravity, but even he admitted he was making an ass of himself: “I need to apologize—I was being an ass earlier,” he said on Thursday to Sanderson’s daughter, referring to a tense moment during her testimony about whether her father was abusive to her sister.
A strong theme of the trial has been “rich-people problems.” Paltrow, whose company is worth $250 million, frequently infuriates the world with her strict diet and semi-outlandish wellness habits, and for many people, she’s the ultimate example of a thin, beautiful, privileged, and very hateable white woman. It’s a little too perfect, then, that this incident involved skiing—a rich-people leisure activity if there ever was one—and took place at Deer Valley, one of the most expensive resorts in the country. Trial-watchers have had a field day tallying up all the ways that Paltrow has continued to embody her elitist persona: her rich-lady outfits and so-called serial-killer glasses, the $250 notebook she was carrying, the green juice she arrived with one day, the bored looks on her face, and so on. Some of it seemed unfair to me: I liked the chunky cream sweater! She’s loaded—how else was she supposed to dress?
The rich-people gawking goes both ways, though. On Wednesday, a witness, one of the plaintiff’s doctors, told the court, “Terry had been a high-functioning, active person. Every day he was doing lots of things: meeting groups, wine tasting, skiing, volunteering.” But, he went on, “after the accident, he deteriorated abruptly, and many of the activities he loved to do, he stopped doing.” It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of someone suing because they can no longer enjoy wine tastings.
To be fair, Sanderson is claiming substantive further injuries, but his complaints somehow make vagina candle–slinging Paltrow look like the logical one. In another exchange that did Sanderson no favors, one of his attorneys said, “Before this crash, Terry was a charming, outgoing, gregarious person.” He went on, “After the crash, he’s no longer charming.” Uh, if my lawyer told the whole courtroom I wasn’t charming, I’d be getting a new lawyer, both because of the insult and because I can’t see a jury looking kindly on anyone suing Gwyneth Paltrow because they’re not as charming as they used to be.
All of this was a preamble to Paltrow’s testimony, which is when her performance really got going. In a clip that’s heavily circulating on social media, one of Sanderson’s attorneys, Kristin Van Orman, asked the actress how she suffered from the crash, prompting her to confirm that Sanderson “deterred you from enjoying the rest of what was a very expensive vacation?” It didn’t sound great when Paltrow drily replied, “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.” The poor thing!
But within the context of the whole testimony, Paltrow actually came out seeming almost relatable. Sanderson and Paltrow have given conflicting accounts of what happened that day, and we don’t yet know the truth. But her actions make it seem as if she’s fighting his charges as a matter of principle. She could just settle—$300,000 isn’t much for a celebrity of her status—but if she thinks Sanderson is attempting to shake her down, it makes sense that she wouldn’t want to give him a dime. If he did indeed run into her and then turn around and sue her, it seems reasonable, and not especially actress-turned-lifestyle-brand-diva of her, to stand her ground.
Experts have speculated about whether Paltrow’s celebrity status will help or hinder her. Will members of the jury see her as the annoying bone broth lady, or will they be blinded by her movie-star charisma? I’m probably more susceptible to movie-star charisma than most, but in a trial where one party’s grievances include having been robbed of their charm, I think it can only help Paltrow that she has charm by the barrel. Her congenital affability showed through in her testimony: She was sometimes bemused, but mostly straightforward and understated. She stuck to her story that she was the one hit, but she also kept her cool and rarely sounded irritated.
Even Van Orman seemed a little starstruck by her at times. At one point, she asked how tall Paltrow was, and the two had a little exchange about it: Paltrow said she was 5-foot-10 but thought she was shrinking; Van Orman lamented having to wear heels to make it to 5-foot-5; Paltrow complimented her shoes.* Later, after Paltrow had left the stand and went to sit with her lawyer again, Van Orman addressed the judge and stated that Paltrow had “lied under oath a number of times.” A few feet behind her, you could see Paltrow’s jaw drop in surprise and stay that way for several seconds. Van Orman eventually recanted and apologized, saying Paltrow had been inconsistent but not lied. You had to wonder if the idea of pissing off Gwyneth Paltrow, the patron saint of middle-aged white ladies, was just too much to bear.
The surreal, semi-relatable moments just kept on coming. Paltrow mentioned that her kids call her Mama, not Mommy. Paltrow needed her reading glasses—not the Jeffrey Dahmer ones, a different pair—to read some papers she was handed. Paltrow spoke about how, right when the crash happened, she was scared for a split second that she was being sexually assaulted. This led to an exchange where Van Orman asked how Paltrow knew that the person who ran into her was male, and Paltrow answered, “He was making some strange noises that sounded male.” Right after it happened, Paltrow apparently yelled at him, “You skied directly into my effing back!” (But she’s sorry for that now.)
Somehow, Jimmy Kimmel came up—Van Orman asked Paltrow about having called herself “accident-prone” once on his TV show. Paltrow’s lawyers objected to the notion that something a person once said on Kimmel could be used as evidence in court. Taylor Swift came up too—Van Orman asked if she and Paltrow were close friends. They were friendly, Paltrow replied, but not close friends. (I hope Swift isn’t too hurt to find out this way.) Van Orman seemed to be trying to insinuate that Paltrow got the idea to countersue for $1 from a suit Swift was involved with a few years ago and was being dishonest when she claimed not to be close friends with her. She even asked if Paltrow had ever given Swift an intimate gift for Christmas—seemingly referencing a Goop video in which Paltrow suggests a vibrator as a present for the singer. The judge shut that line of questioning down too.
Paltrow’s time on the witness stand lasted only a few hours, and it seems as if her turn in the hot seat is over, but next week is expected to bring the testimony of her husband, daughter, and son, who were all on the 2016 ski trip with her. It’s kind of hard to believe that the children are testifying: They’re only teenagers—they were 11 and 9 at the time of the trip. Celebrities tend to be pretty private about their kids, so this is going to be a lot of exposure for them. I can’t wait to see what happens. No matter how the trial goes, I know I’m guilty—of enjoying this a little too much.
Correction, March 28, 2023: This piece originally misstated that lawyer Kristin Van Orman lamented that she is 5-foot-5 and must wear heels. She lamented that she must wear heels to make it to 5-foot-5.